The Ocean Ranger and Cougar he­li­copter tragedies

The Compass - - OPINION -

On Valen­tine’s Day 1982, I was in bed with the flu. At that time I was liv­ing on Merasheen Place in the west end of St. John’s. Our house was a newly con­structed two-storey and we were liv­ing in a fairly ex­posed area as the hous­ing area was not fully com­plete.

I had a rest­less night and woke around dawn to the sound of howl­ing wind and snow rag­ing out­side. I can re­mem­ber say­ing to my wife, “How does the roof stay on th­ese houses in such vi­cious wind storms?”

Far from my mind that sav­age morn­ing was the drama un­fold­ing off our coast. On the Grand Banks the Ocean Ranger, the world’s might­i­est drilling rig op­er­ated by Mo­bil Oil Canada, was be­ing pounded by waves more than 20 me­tres high. At the height of the storm, the “in­de­struc­tible” rig be­gan to list, even­tu­ally cap­siz­ing. The re­sult, all 84 men on­board — 56 of them from New­found­land — per­ished. It was at the time Canada’s worst tragedy at sea since the Sec­ond World War.

At 6 a.m. I reached out and turned on our clock ra­dio and as was a reg­u­lar prac­tice tuned in to CBC Ra­dio’s morn­ing show with host Peter Miller.

All hell was break­ing loose at CBC as news of the tragedy had reached the air­ways and de­tails (al­though scanty at that time) were be­ing sent out by the rig-own­ers Mo­bil Oil Canada who had set up a me­dia in­for­ma­tion cen­tre in St. John’s.

Friends in peril

Sud­denly the news sunk in. “Oh my God,” I said to my wife, “Johnny Pin­horn is on that rig and oh, blessed heav­ens, John O’Brien’s son Ken is out there on it too.”

Pin­horn was the youngest son of well-known busi­ness­man An­drew Pin­horn. The Pin­horns were friends of the fam­ily - (next-door neigh­bours to my fa­ther-in-law). We knew Johnny since he was a young lad.

Ken O’Brien was John O’Brien’s son. John and I worked to­gether at CBC Tele­vi­sion. John was a well-known film cam­era­man who him­self died sud­denly in a tragic early morn­ing fire that raged through his sum­mer home in Clarke’s Beach.

The fol­low­ing weeks were gut wrench­ing for the en­tire prov­ince. Ob­vi­ously for me it was wit­ness­ing the griev­ing Pin­horn and O’Brien fam­i­lies. Work­ing in the me­dia I too found my­self sur­rounded by the ex­ten­sive cov­er­age of the tragedy.

More tragedy at sea

The lat­est tragedy (March 12) in­volv­ing the ditched Siko­rsky-S-92 op­er­ated by Cougar He­li­copters Inc. — killing 17 — also came as a real shocker to me.

The morn­ing of the crash, I was part of a group of fel­low New­found­lan­ders and Nova Sco­tians work­ing on an up­com­ing St. Pa­trick’s Day cel­e­bra­tion (to be held on Satur­day).

Mid-morn­ing one of the group from New­found­land came in to the club­house kitchen and asked us: “Did ye hear about the he­li­copter crash back home?”

He said, “ a he­li­copter op­er­ated by Cougar crashed into the ocean on its way to the Hiber­nia and Sea Rose oil rigs - there were 18 on board and I be­lieve all are lost.”

Again, my heart jumped to my throat. “ Oh My God,” I replied, “ I have a nephew who works on the Hiber­nia rig — my brother’s son.” I near pan­icked. It is hard to ex­plain the thoughts that went through my head. I was scared to look at my phone for fear there was an ur­gent mes­sage from home. And, I was ap­pre­hen­sive be­fore open­ing my e-mails, scared there was bad news wait­ing.

I even­tu­ally calmed down when later a phone call to my brother and his wife in St. John’s re­vealed their son ( my nephew) was not one of the vic­tims. He, in fact, was al­ready out on the rig. He works on com­put­ers and op­er­ates at the rig’s con­trol cen­tre.

My sis­ter-in-law said, “ Bill, Craig phoned us im­me­di­ately af­ter they ( those on board) were in­formed — even be­fore the story was re­leased to the me­dia.”

Crews and staff on the Hiber­nia and Sea Rose rigs were just about par­a­lyzed with the news. Re­mem­ber th­ese are co-work­ers of a tightly knit bunch who were em­ployed with Husky En­ergy Inc. and Exxon Mo­bil Corp. All of them are re­quired to travel back and forth on sim­i­lar he­li­copters ( like the one that went down). My nephew had al­ready been shut­tled out to the Hiber­nia rig a cou­ple of days be­fore on­board the same Siko­rsky he­li­copter.

I can’t imag­ine how they could con­cen­trate on their work that day and the fol­low­ing days with all the trauma ( in­clud­ing the lo­ca­tion of the downed he­li­copter on the ocean floor) and with news re­leases been sent out list­ing names of the de­ceased and the mirac­u­lous story about the one sur­vivor Robert Decker from St. John’s.

Long reach­ing ef­fect

Like with the Ocean Ranger tragedy, the most re­cent Cougar He­li­copter crash has long-reach­ing ef­fects. Res­i­dents from many parts of the prov­ince are grieved and shocked again.

I know there are no sim­ple an­swers and we New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans all know we are a re­silient peo­ple whose an­ces­tors knew tragedy first­hand, par­tic­u­larly deal­ing with the sea. How­ever, at this time there are no of­fi­cial an­swers and we should be cau­tious about what we say to fam­ily, re­la­tions and friends of the de­ceased.

The tragedy with all its ram­i­fi­ca­tions has to play it­self out. Time is the only an­swer. Fed­eral Trans­porta­tion Safety Board au­thor­i­ties and the RCMP are con­duct­ing their thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tions. No doubt soon there will be a lot of talk about what hap­pened — who was at fault ( if any­one) and like the Ocean Ranger tragedy, how this could have hap­pened.

One of the first ques­tions to sur­face a day af­ter the in­ci­dent was why our first-re­spon­der ( reg­u­lar) Cor­morant search and res­cue crews were in Nova Sco­tia on a train­ing mis­sion at the time. Nor­mally they are sta­tioned at 9-wing Gan­der. That morn­ing Cor­morant he­li­copters, dis­patched from Nova Sco­tia, took one hour to reach the site.

My view on that is — no mat­ter where the crews were lo­cated prob­a­bly noth­ing could pos­si­bly have been done to save those work­ers. By the time they reached the site all 18 could al­ready have per­ished I feel. It’s a mir­a­cle young Robert Decker sur­vived. At the time of writ­ing, he is still in crit­i­cal but sta­ble con­di­tion in the Health Sci­ence Cen­tre.

I’ll never for­get

It’s funny how one never for­gets ma­jor tragedies. In my case I re­mem­ber vividly where I was on Nov. 22, 1963 when Pres­i­dent Kennedy was killed by a sniper’s bul­let in Dal­las. I re­mem­ber where I was April 4, 1968 when Martin Luther King was shot in Mem­phis. I re­call where I was Aug. 31,1997 when Lady Diana was killed. I re­mem­ber where I was Sept. 11, 2001 ( 9-11) when the planes crashed into the twin tow­ers in New York. I will for­ever re­mem­ber where I was when the Ocean Ranger sank and now I will add one more to my never-for­get list — where I was when I got the news of the doomed Cougar flight 491 that crashed into the frigid wa­ters 40 miles ( 65 kilo­me­tres) off St. John’s.

I pray this is the last en­try I make to that dreaded list.

Bill West­cott writes from Florida

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