Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

October 01, 2009

Tragedy at sea: Memories of Newfoundland's Ocean Ranger disaster, By Mike Heffernan, from:, September 22, 2009

In 1982, 84 workers died when the Ocean Ranger drilling rig sank east of Newfoundland. After three years of searching for Coast Guard seaman Greg MacClennan, Newfoundland author Mike Heffernan caught up with him and collected his memories of being a crew member of one of the ships that answered the distress call in 1982.

The Hudson was tied up on the south side of St. John’s harbour. The crew stood by the railing, smoking and chatting amongst themselves. I walked up the gangway and was introduced to a giant of a man. He was bearded, his hair long in back and gathered together into a ponytail. His hands were thick and heavily calloused, swallowing my own as we made our introductions. Yet his voice was soft and his words articulate.

I wasn’t surprised to learn he was a farmer, his herd of fainting goats the largest in northern Ontario. We sat in the lounge, the walls decorated with photos, certificates and memorabilia from the ship’s storied past. Afterwards, he took me on a tour: the wheelhouse, the lifeboat deck, and the lower levels of the ship. I couldn’t help but imagine him trying to negotiate the steep staircases and narrow hallways as he and his shipmates carried the frozen dead on Stokes Basket.

Greg MacClellan; Seaman, CCGS Hudson

I was sixteen when I started sailing on gypsum carriers running cargo from Hansport, Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico. Fundy Gypsum the company was called. It was there that I met a couple of gentlemen who worked for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. They told me about what they called the “white boats.” They had medical plans and bars on board and did a lot of foreign trips. “Maybe you should look into it,” they said.

Being young, I was impressionable. One thing led to another, and I got an interview with the people who ran the oceanographic research vessel the Hudson, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. The job was for a deckhand, or seaman.

By October 1981, I had joined the Hudson in Resolute Bay. I’ve deviated slightly over the years, but I have always come back to her. She has been my home for twenty-eight years, and I am now the longest serving crewmember.

That February, with a full crew of scientists and meteorologists on board, we got the boat ready for a storm survey trip in the Denmark Straits east of Greenland. We had masts set up on the bow, anemometer stations and weather monitoring equipment to measure wave height.

We set off from Halifax on February 14, our course line taking us across the Grand Banks. When we got underway that morning, there was a moderate sea swell, but as we steamed into the evening and into the night, things picked up steadily. I was on the twelve to four sea watch. The shallow waters of the Grand Banks generate high waves and close swells. I can clearly remember being on the wheel which was about forty-five feet above the waterline, depending on how we were loaded and ballasted. The captain had the search lights on to determine wave height, and they were that high that I couldn’t see the crest above the sun visor. I mean, they were mountainous, brutal seas.

It must’ve been after midnight when word came in over the radio that we were tasked for search and rescue. There were two distress calls. The first was for all ships in the vicinity of Hibernia, that the oil rig ODECO Ocean Ranger had capsized in position. Then a second reported 84 men in the water.

The captain spread the two telexes out on the chart table. Although we knew there were lifeboats on the rig, things weren’t sounding too good. But we were going for survivors -- no question about it.

The Hudson is a very good sea boat. With four engines on full board, going as fast as we could, the wind on the stern shoving us along, we were able to make good time. I can’t say how many hours it was from when we received the distress calls until we got on scene but it seemed to go by very quickly.

We arrived just after daylight. The wind had died down but the seas were still way up. I was scared, too, because we were in a situation where we were getting heavy with ice and starting to develop a lazy roll. Captain Loran Strum was from a seafaring family on the south coast of Nova Scotia and highly respected by the crew. He was well seasoned, very good in rough sea conditions, and we felt safe when he was in charge of the ship, more so than a lot of other captains. He had everyone out with mallets, even the cooks, beating the ice off of her.

Several months before, I was sailing on a bulk carrier which had run aground off Stanton Island. The hull had been ruptured and we pretty well near sank in New York Harbour. I guess you could say, I had gone from the frying pan and into the fire.

There was debris everywhere, but no rig. Dozens of bodies floated by. Some of them were in just their underwear -- nothing else. But they all had their life jackets on. They weren’t all wearing them properly, but they all had them on. We saw others in the distance because of the saltwater activated lights on their lifejackets. If we could’ve navigated better and seen better before the wind took them, we might've gotten them. Nowadays, we have Fast Rescue Craft which can be launched quickly in some fairly good sea states. But there was no way we could launch a boat in anything like that. It would be totally out of the question.

With the ones that we could get, the captain would make an announcement over the PA system for us to stand by over the starboard side. It can be real dangerous to turn around in rough seas. You get your speed up and your engines revved and then get the rudder hard over so you don’t roll over in the trough.

Captain Strum would bring us right up alongside the body and we’d drop a steel wire, like a lasso with a shackle on it, which we hung from a snatch up on a post over the edge of the lifeboat deck. We’d wait for the wire to sink down past their waist to the back of their knees, pull it tight, and then four or five of us would haul him up over the rail. We had Stokes Baskets ready to take each person down below to the nurse.

The second guy we got had one arm draped around a lifejacket. He was sort of below the surface with the lifejacket floating on top. He had red overhauls on. His nametag read Blackmore, Ken Blackmore. When we got him on deck, I noticed his watch was still working. It was one of those digital Timex watches. He had been in the sea for about a day and his watch was still working. Little things that stick out in your mind no matter how many years go by.

I guess that those would’ve been the first bodies I had ever seen up close. It was certainly the first I had ever handled. I felt, I don’t know, a dramatic feeling. I don’t know how to describe it. Tormented, maybe -- I was tormented by it. Seeing all those guys frozen in the positions they died was a good eye opener for a young fellow going to sea. We were trained but there’s no book you can read that can prepare you for picking a dead person out of the water.

In the long term, it never posed me any real psychological difficulties. I learned from it, actually. Out on the Grand Banks, we had floater suits and that was it. We now have proper suits to wear. The Ocean Ranger commission changed all of that almost overnight. There’s now a survival suit on board for every crew member.

Me, I bought my own to make sure I had one in my cabin which I can grab at a moment’s notice. I have an over-the-side bag, too. I’m the only one on board who has one. Some of the crew laugh at me, but they haven’t seen the things I’ve seen. They haven’t seen Swiss Air Flight 111 or the Ocean Ranger. There’s water, Vaseline, food, pain pills, wool hats, sunglasses, a knife, everything you would need to survive for three days. It shouldn’t take three days to be found. At least, I hope to God I wouldn’t be out there for three days.

When we first arrived on scene, there was a close search pattern. But as the day went on, the debris spread out and the search quickly expanded. It was then that we came across one of the Ranger’s lifeboats broken in half. Only that one half was there. I could see right down into it and there were men still strapped to their seatbelts. We put a line on it with a grappling hook and tried to bring it up, but we couldn’t lift it -- it was just way too heavy for our crane. It eventually rolled over and we had to cut it loose. That’s the last we saw of it.

The way I remember it, after three or four days, the families were totally freaking out on the waterfront and we were told to head to St. John’s. The chief mate came below -- he’d obviously gotten information from ashore -- and informed us that the media were all over the place. He said for us not to beat the ice off the bullring or the jack staff where the flag goes up on the bow. The pipe used to be four inches around, but with all the ice built up it was almost the circumference of a forty-five gallon drum. He wanted the media to see what we had been dealing with out there. “Leave it for the cameras,” he said.

We went into Pier 17 where a temporary morgue had been set up. The media weren’t allowed down there -- the gates were locked -- but they were trying to get in. They had cars and trucks and vans parked all the way up the side of the hill by the fuelling dock.

This might sound like the strangest thing. We had scallops and fries for dinner. When we were carrying off the five bodies across the gangway, the galley exhaust fans were pumping out the smell from the deep fryer right where we were standing. The smell was everywhere, lingering in the air. In the years since, I’ve seen a few pictures and a tape of myself and my buddies and the Mounties and my mind always takes me right back to the smell of deep fried scallops and fries. It’s something I’ll never forget.

That same day, we sailed for the Denmark Straits. We were gone for three months and didn’t get home until the end of April. There was no counselling, and that’s the way it was. Nobody came to talk to us about what we had seen, and there was no debriefing at any point.

I’ve been involved in other tragedies at sea, and the only time anyone ever talked to me was for Swiss Air 111 and that was on the phone months later. It was probably someone contracted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I told her to stop reminding me and hung up.

Mike Heffernan was born and raised in St. John's, Newfoundland. He is the author of Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster.

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