Some perspective first:
The House of Commons standing committee on national defence committed this week to a review of search and rescue response times across the country.
Hats off to MP Jack Harris, the New Democrat defence critic, for pushing for the review.
The current search and rescue response times for the military’s Gander-based Cormorant helicopters work like this:
The choppers must respond within 30 minutes of an emergency call between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays.
But the response time is two hours for evenings, weekends and holidays.
MP Jack Harris has said those in distress deserve better, pointing out that other countries require search and rescue response within 15 minutes.
And he’s right.
Imagine if the fire department worked under those response times.
A two-hour wait if your house burns after 4 p.m.?
The public wouldn’t stand for it.
Not on land.
At sea should be no different.
The search and rescue times were most recently called into question with the crash of Cougar Flight 491 on March 12, 2009.
But there have been other tragedies.
Offshore oil workers aren’t alone at sea.
Fishermen are there too.
And the search and rescue response times have cost some fishermen their lives.
The Melina and Keith II sank on Sept. 12, 1995 while fishing roughly 160 kilometres east of Cape Bonavista.
The first coast guard vessel to arrive on scene was the Leonard J. Cowley — 9 hours and 45 minutes after it had been confirmed the vessel went down and its location pinpointed.
It took the National Defence Cormorant helicopter operating out of Gander’s 103 Search and Rescue Squadron approximately 3 hours and 8 minutes after the capsized vessel was located to arrive on scene.
The fishing vessel Lady Charlotte Star was the first to arrive, by which time four of the eight crewmen —Ivan Dyke, Justin Ralph, Anthony Molloy and Joshua Williams — were lost.
The survivors spent 4 hours in the water.
One of the survivors told The Independent newspaper soon after the tragedy that one or possibly two of the men could have been saved had the Cormorant helicopter arrived sooner.
Phillip McDonald told the paper he’s haunted by the certainty a faster response — even by 20 minutes — would have saved at least one of the four men who died.
McDonald — the fisheries observer aboard the boat — pointed blame at federal maritime search and rescue policy.
But that's another story.
•••HEADLINE: A survivor’s story
DECK: Bernard Dyke spent four hours in the North Atlantic in his T-shirt and underwear after the fishing boat Melina and Keith II went down Sept. 11 off Cape Bonavista. Four men were lost in the tragedy; four others made it home. The 17-year-old survived by clinging to an overturned lifeboat. He also held tight to a piece of rope, ready to lash himself to the boat is need be — so his mother would at least have his body.
By STEPHANIE PORTER
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Eastport, Bonavista Bay
The ashtray in front of Marg Dyke is full of butts. She’s about to add another, taking long, slow drags off the cigarette, looking towards the ceiling — or somewhere further away — and blinking.
Shaking herself back to the present, Marg’s eyes become warm, engaging. She has no problem welcoming strangers into her home, putting the kettle on without asking. She answers questions easily, unprompted and honest.
Marg is waiting for her son, Bernard, to come home. It’s a miserable rainy day, but he’s out cutting wood with a couple of buddies. Bernard is on the go all the time these days, she says, always trying to keep busy.
“Bernard used to come in here, blast the stereo, and I’d always be yelling at him to turn it down,” she says. “Now I don’t mind, he can play it as loud as he wants, I’m glad to hear it.
“I’ve got my second chance with him.”
Seventeen-year-old Bernard is Marg’s only child. And she almost lost him — indeed, there was a point during the long evening of Sept. 12 when she was told she had — when the fishing boat he was working on, the Melina and Keith II, capsized and sank.
Bernard was the youngest of the eight men on board. He and three others — including the skipper, Shawn Ralph — survived. Four others, Ivan Dyke (no relation), Justin Ralph, Joshua Williams and Anthony Molloy, were lost.
This is Bernard’s first year fishing, and it was his third trip offshore. Marg says she supported his desire to go work — she believes in her child with all her heart — but found him being away difficult.
The nights he was gone, she says, she’d crawl into his bed and sleep there.
“I used to sit here some nights, hear about thunder and storms in the area, or coming up, and I’d hope, oh God, that they’re OK,” Marg says.
“But I never thought once that night it was going to happen.”
Marg doesn’t have a telephone or a television, so it was a knock on the door and a concerned friend that brought her news of the boat’s accident that night.
It was about 9:30 p.m.
By then, though she didn’t know it, her son had spent over four hours in the North Atlantic, in his T-shirt and underwear, clinging to an overturned aluminum boat. She didn’t know he was one of the heroes of the tragedy. And she didn’t know he had been rescued.
Bernard finally returns home, soaked to the bone and telling stories of the bears he and his buddies just saw — they didn’t get so much wood after all, they were so busy trailing out the animals.
He changes into dry clothes and baseball hat, takes a seat at the table beside his mother, and lights up a cigarette. There’s a plastic supermarket tray of muffins and squares near him, a gift from a sympathetic friend of the family.
Bernard had gone to Marystown looking for work earlier the summer, with no luck. When he returned, his friend, 21-year-old Justin Ralph, got Bernard work beside him on his older brother’s (skipper Shawn Ralph) boat, fishing shrimp and turbot.
Bernard says he didn’t mind the work, the days were long, but the money good. On his first trip out, he cleared $1,100 in four days. Had his last trip not ended prematurely, he’s sure he would have pulled in $2,000.
The day the boat went down, Bernard says the sea was fairly calm. “There was a bit of water on the go, but we didn’t mind that,” he says. The hold was full of shrimp, and the fishermen were hard at work pulling in the turbot nets.
“Everything seemed perfect. We had about 23 turbot nets in, then she took a weird list,” Bernard says. “The captain run up to see what was going on, by the time he got there it was like this.” Bernard tips his hand on a near 45-degree angle.
“We ran over, cut the life raft off and poof, she was gone. That fast.”
He estimates about 50 seconds between when the boat started to list and when she completely overturned.
“I didn’t panic at all, it was just taking a dive. I knew how to swim. And when you hits the water, you’ve got to swim.
“I mean, lots went through me head, a lot about the buddies, well there was two fellows who couldn’t swim, that’s what I thought about first.”
No one had time to put on a life jacket; the captain was the only one with a survival suit on, and Bernard says they all headed for him. Bernard thinks all eight on board survived the boat turning over; he’s not exactly sure when and how the four who are presumed drowned (as of press time, only Molloy’s body had been retrieved) let go of life.
They spent the first bit of time sitting on the bottom of their overturned boat. The life raft nowhere in sight, one of Bernard’s co-workers held him by one arm while he went underwater to cut a small aluminum boat free. That aluminum boat became the men’s only life preserver.
Bernard says he was the only one with a knife, “though everyone was supposed to have one.” He used it to cut off his jacket, sweater, and jeans, fearing clothes would weigh him down. “I took everything off as fast as I could,” he says.
“We were on top of the boat, on the bottom of her, for two hours. Then we were two-and-a-half hours in the water, three hours, something. I don’t know how long I was in. I was in shock when they took me aboard.
“When we were on the top of the boat we sang a lot, we sang 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall all the way down and then we sang something else. Then we were just huddled up. Justin and I were huddled up there for an hour, having a laugh.”
Even there, floating in the north Atlantic in his underwear, 150 kilometres from shore, Bernard says he didn’t think it would be so bad; he figured they’d be rescued in no time. But an hour turned into two, into three, four …
The Melina and Keith sank after a couple of hours. The surviving men hung on to the overturned aluminum boat — there was a hole in it, so they couldn’t attempt to turn it over and crawl in.
Bernard used the hole as a handhold, to make sure he didn’t go under. “I stuck that hand there first,” he puts his right hand forward, but pulls the sleeve to cover the wounds. “Until that hand got all cut up, then I worked the other hand, cut he up, then I worked the arm.”
He had a piece of rope with him too, which he held tight to. He would have lashed his arm to the boat if he’d felt himself starting to go.
Marg, listening intently, eyes wide, filling with tears from time to time, interrupts. “He told me he had the piece of rope there, so he could tie himself on, so at least they’d be able to bring the body back to me.” She fumbles for another cigarette.
Brendan rolls his eyes. He and his mother are close — especially since his father died a few years back — but he’s got the independent spirit of a 17-year-old who’s had enough of high school, slightly cocky and ready to head out on his own.
According to reports, the boat overturned at 3:30 p.m. The four survivors were rescued between three and four hours later by another fishing boat, the Lady Charlotte Star.
“I was so cold, they said I was in shock,” says Bernard. “When the observer came out, and saw me just laid there with all the blood everywhere, the eyes were rolled back into my head. The observer thought I was dead.”
He was told it was a couple of hours before he responded to his name or opened his eyes. He doesn’t remember the rescue; just waking up in the bunk.
“I made two ship-to-shore calls,” says Marg. “The first time he was asleep, the next, I got him, about 3:30 in the morning.” Though the tears didn’t stop, Marg says she finally felt a huge weight off her shoulders.
Bernard sighs again.
“I didn’t really want to hear mom’s voice, but I wanted her to hear mine,” he says. “I was in no big rush, you know, I tried to get them to take us to Catalina to get our cheques but they wouldn’t.”
The days after the accident have been a series of ups and downs. The Dykes’ home was filled with well-wishers the day Bernard came home — his buddies even bought him some clothes to replace the ones he’d cut off.
“They all pull together, I must say. Most of Eastport, St. Chad’s, Burnside, it’s all fishermen, they all understand,” says Marg.
“That night, holy Christ, you couldn’t get through the door for young people. The community pulled together pretty good, did a lot for Bernard, did a lot for me, the families, getting good support.”
“Yah, too much,” Bernard says with a sarcastic laugh.
Eastport, a community of a little over 1,000, is tight-knit, and the tragedy has hit hard. The boat went over that quickly, on a relatively calm day — there’s no shortage of questions swirling around.
But most — neighbours, other fishermen, community members — are reluctant to go on the record with opinions to the press, it’s too soon, too many things don’t seem right. All the men on board are praised for their strength of spirit.
A neighbour in St. Chad’s, where the boat was berthed, says the fishermen were “good, hard working people.” One man at a diner in Glovertown, like many, can’t help drawing parallels to the tragedy of the Ryan’s Commander, from nearby St. Brendan’s.
]That was almost exactly a year ago, almost exactly the same kind of boat, in similar conditions. He’s got some concerns about the 18-metre boats these crews are heading out in, but won’t say more, he’s waiting for an official report too.
Another skipper from the area declined comment, saying “it’s too fresh for us all, there’s too much I don’t know.”
“Oh, it’ll come,” Marg forecasts. “When (the survivors) really open their mouths, the shit’s going to hit … They’ve got some stories to tell.”
Bernard has already had two interviews by the marine safety board, as investigators try to piece together what happened.
For now, Bernard can only tell his own story, what he remembers. He wants the truth out there, and he wants to go back to normal life — enough with the official interviews, the sympathy. He’s ready to get back out and fish.
“I do want to wait around and see if they find any more bodies,” he says. “That might be closure for the experience.
“Maybe it hasn’t hit me, maybe by and by it’ll attack. There always used to be me and Justin and Stephen kicking around, everybody else was working. Now Stephen’s up in Manitoba and Justin’s gone.
“I saw him just floating away.”
Bernard plans, “by and by,” to go to trade school for carpentry. “Fishing, I’d never do it for a career for the rest of me life … I’d go for now, until I got unemployment and then quit.
“But I’d always have a vest on me, one of them little vests that blows up with the CO2 button. I’d have one of them,” he says. “I’d know everything on the boat … and I’d have my own survival suit on the bottom deck or the top deck wherever I was working, I’d tie it on so I wouldn’t have to run for it.”
Marg changes the subject. Having heard enough about her son’s return to the water, she asks for a picture to be taken of the two of them together. She’s working on a scrapbook for Bernard, with pictures and articles and anything else she can find.
“You know I get up now, 20 times a night, just to look and make sure he’s in bed, still breathing,” she says, laughing self-consciously. “I want to get in there and cuddle right up next to him … but he’d have me killed.”
She pats her hair into place and crouches down, giving Bernard a warm hug from behind. She kisses his cheek and proclaims her love for her son.
He stiffens as the camera clicks. “Jesus mom,” he says, rolling his eyes again. “If you keeps this up, I’ll drown meself.”
Stephanie’s article was a finalist for the 2005 Atlantic Journalism Award for best feature. Stephanie Porter and Alisha Morrissey won the Atlantic Journalism Gold Award that year for continuing coverage for the sinking of the Melina and Keith II.