Saturday, March 14, 2009

The sea claims 17 more. [Updated]

I haven't blogged about it before, but the whole country has been following the story of a Sikorsky S-92 transport helicopter carrying 16 oil rig workers and two crew members which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 55km off the coast of Newfoundland Thursday morning.

News unfolds fast in this internet age. Thursday morning there was a report of the crash; then, a report - which turned out to be wrong - that two survivors had been found. Then a press conference on Thursday noon that confirmed one survivor had been rescued and one body (which would turn out to be a young woman) recovered. All the workers were wearing survival suits, we were told - after the Ocean Ranger disaster, Newfoundlanders became very educated about such things. The suits protect against hypothermia for some time, are flotation devices, and have individual radio locater beacons. So there was much cause for hope.

Until the Thursday late-afternoon press conference, where the visibly shaken team from Cougar Helicopters (the transport company), the Search and Rescue unit, the Transportation Safety Board, and a few other assorted officials confirmed that no signals were being received from any of the 16 remaining survival suits' individual location beacons, although they "[could not] speculate on why they wouldn't have worked" despite repeated press questions.

My heart sank to my toes. As I said, Newfoundland is an oil province, and ever since the Ranger disaster the press is full of information about survival suits, and helicopter flotation devices, and rig escape pods, and the rest of it. And there was only one reason I could think of why there would be no signals from any of 16 survival suits.

Barring some bizarre collective failure, they were too deep to be located.

And since the survival suits are, by definition, flotation suits, that meant the other 16 people were still in the helicopter.

They continued with the search and rescue effort all Friday, and put a brave face on it. At Friday noon they reported that two life-rafts which had been found turned out to be empty. The Friday late-afternoon press conference said that the search was being called off because the 24-hour survivability window for someone in such a suit in these weather conditions had been well surpassed. Nobody publicly said the unthinkable.

Today they reported that they've found the helicopter. It's largely intact except for a piece of the tail, which has broken off but is near the fuselage. Now they will raise the copter, and Mike Cunningham, of the Transportation Safety Board, is quoted as saying "that once the fuselage is recovered, the team will 'very respectfully' remove the bodies from the fuselage". It was, I believe, the first public confirmation of what had been wrenchingly discussed on NL forums and comments threads for two days.

The names of 12 of the 17 lost have been released (the name of the survivor was released on Thursday), and I was only a little surprised to learn that I had known one of them quite well as a teenager, some twenty-odd years ago. We're such a little population, on an island, and everybody is somebody's cousin or friend or acquaintance. I haven't seen him since all those years ago, so it's not a personal loss, although saddening, but a reminder of how interconnected we all are there. And the whole episode is a reminder to me of how connected I still feel to that place. What it does mean is that a lot of people who were close to these people are hurting tonight.

I couldn't help thinking about a poem written by Greg Tiller of Mount Pearl, just outside St. John's, which became very well-known in Newfoundland after Tiller died in the Ocean Ranger disaster. A lot of people marveled at the chilling sentiment in Tiller's poem, which many felt foreshadowed the disaster that claimed the young author's life.


Huge Iron Island.
37 stories high, two city blocks square,
impervious to the attacks of an indignant sea…
Our mutton-headed people trail behind this pied-piper,
bickering over the loose change falling through the holes in his pockets.
Mother Earth created us, raised us, taught us, sheltered us
and this is how we repay her.
Beware, she shall have her revenge.

- Greg Tiller

Very sad tonight.

UPDATE: Thanks to the brave Search and Recovery teams who made repeated dives in an underwater remote vehicle, they've recovered all the other 16 bodies, which were found in the helicopter. In this disaster at sea - unusual for disasters-at-sea - at least all the families will know the physical final resting place of their loved ones.

What bitter little comforts life hands us sometimes.




Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

Very sad tonight. My thoughts go out to the families, as to all who have lost sons (and daughters) to the sea before. I sometimes say to my students that we are blessed to live on two planets, not just one: one is land, the other is sea. That blessing can too easily become a curse when those of us from one venture to the other.

12:02 a.m.  
Blogger Mike said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:28 a.m.  
Blogger Mike said...

Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and "the mourners go about the streets"; but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore--you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object, and a real evidence: but at sea, the man is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea--to use a homely but expressive phrase--you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form, and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.
--Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast. (reposted to correct typo)

6:33 a.m.  
Blogger Xtreme English said...

how horrifying to have a helicopter just drop like a rock and sink with most of the people still inside. that surely adds to the anguish of their loved ones.

incredible poem you posted, ronnie.

so sorry for this heart-breaking loss.

6:27 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Thank you all for your comments. There are times when you think, "There's nothing I can say", and there are times when somehow you say exactly the right thing anyway. Sherwood, I never thought about it that way, although I should have, as I've always known the sea was "other", at once familiar as the view outside my window every morning and as alien as deep space. Mike, that quotation is beautiful and true, and reminds me of what a hole the crewmates of the lost are feeling. Mary Ellen, you're right - there are few good ways to die; knowing that your loved one's last moments were so terrifying must just tear one's heart out.

Nine more bodies recovered this morning from the helicopter, and they'd gone back for more. The terrible ho[e we have to have now is that all the bodies are together and one or two families won't be left without even that much.

8:17 p.m.  
Blogger Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Recovery must be one of the most gut-wrenching jobs there is. My heart goes out to those amazing people, too.

10:03 p.m.  
Anonymous Sister said...

I'm glad they found the bodies as well, Sis. Dad always tells us that when his uncle was washed overboard, and they never found his body, his grandmother would sometimes have periods of intense depression, years later, where she would be wondering where the body was, what had happened to it, where it washed up. As you said, it's a rare thing in a marine disaster to be able to bring them home and bury them. Thank God, in this case, every family will have that comfort.

10:50 a.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Sis, I knew about Dad's uncle, but never knew about the long-term impact on his mother (Dad's grandmother). Makes you wonder how many people suffer the same ongoing depression, obsession and pain in silence.

No grief counseling back then. You talked to the Priest, the Minister, the Captain if you were Sally Ann as Dad's family is, or no-one.

8:15 p.m.  
Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

I'm betting that "Sally Ann" doesn't stand for "Syriac-Assyrian."

2:38 a.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

No, my friend - it stands for "Salvation Army", not merely a charity organization, as Americans assume, but in the UK and Newfoundland, a full-fledged fundamenatlist religion that thousands have been raised in for about a century and a half now. Google "William Booth" or "Catherine Booth" for oh, so much more.

9:57 p.m.  
Blogger Dann said...

Off the main topic, my wife and I had the good fortune to eat out at a place where the local Salvation Army group was having some sort of dinner.

By their mannerisms, I assumed that this group was something more than a charity organization.

Back on topic, as one that has traveled on the deep, it is especially good to hear that the rescue crews are at least able to bring everyone home.


5:34 p.m.  
Blogger ronnie said...

Thanks, Dann.

9:07 p.m.  

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