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.