By Steve Bartlett
ST. JOHN’S — Waves in the North Atlantic were cresting over 60 feet and winds were gusting well over 100 kilometres per hour.
Even harsher conditions the night before — including winds over 200 km/h — had caused the Ocean Ranger to list and eventually sink into the raging ocean.
Flying over the turbulent storm in a Labrador helicopter and looking for the semi-submersible rig’s 84 crew members was Peter McKeage, a pilot with the 103 Rescue Unit in Gander.
“You’ve got to understand the conditions,” he said. “Normally, if there’s a body in the water, we’ll instantly send (a search and rescue technician) down to pick them up, but that wasn’t the case.”
A few miles from the Ranger, another rig, the Sedco 706, was being tossed around by the tempest.
On board was radio operator John Whelan.
“We were all clung to the side of the desk (in the radio room) holding on, trying to keep from being thrown up against the wall,” he recalls.
That was 30 years ago Wednesday.
None of the crew from the Ocean Ranger — 56 of them Newfoundlanders — were found alive, despite the efforts of people like Whelan, McKeage and countless others searching from the air or on the water.
Every available resource was sent to the scene roughly 160 miles east of St. John’s.
“It was a very extensive search,” Whelan said. “The airways were quite busy, and when you think back on it, there was an awful lot of people putting in an awful lot of effort, but to no avail. There wasn’t anything that could be done. Mother Nature was having her way that day, but I guess you had to be there to experience it.”
Whelan and McKeage were in the thick of things.
They were complete strangers but found themselves intertwined throughout the unfolding tragedy.
“We were kind of calming each other down,” McKeage said.
From the Sedco 706’s radio room, Whelan was in constant communication with McKeage and other searchers, providing them with information about things like weather and fuel.
“At the time, John was our lifeline,” recalls McKeage. “It was a very tough day, but John was really, at the time, our link to everything.”
Whelan was relaying information to the searchers while dealing with the situation aboard the Sedco 706.
The sea had forced many of the rig’s crew out into a corridor because it would have tossed them from their bunks.
Even more trying was that many of the men had worked with members of the Ocean Ranger’s crew.
One of the guys on the Sedco 706 had two brothers on the ill-fated rig.
Whelan had a close friend on it.
“It was a pretty sombre moment when it was all going on, and everybody was just trying to do the best they could and push forward,” he said.
And above in the sky, McKeage faced challenges besides the search, including having to land on the rolling Sedco 706 for fuel.
“Peter is after flying a good many years and I don’t think he’s after flying in too many storms like that,” Whelan points out.
It was the composure of Whelan and others onboard the Sedco 706 — the firefighters, the refuellers and so on — that still stands out for McKeage.
He said the necessity of the situation brought an amazing calm.
“And we were just young fellas,” he said.
Nothing could have prepared them for the outcome.
“Quite a few hours (after the search started) we realized that it was going to be tough to find any survivors,” McKeage said. “We had located the only lifeboat with a large hole in its side with some bodies. It was a very tough time.”
He said nothing in his life at the time had been as tragic.
McKeage wasn’t alone. Families were devastated at the loss of fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. The entire province grieved. Everyone either knew someone on the rig or a family member.
After they dealt with the tragedy in their own ways, McKeage and Whelan continued on with their careers.
McKeage enjoyed a 29-year stretch as a Canadian Forces pilot and is now the aviation advisor to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB).
Whelan works offshore as a radio operator/weather observer on the Hibernia platform. He’s been there since the spring of 1997.
Feb. 15, 1982, was a long day for them. McKeage said he and Whelan talked about going for a beer as their efforts wound down.
However, that never happened. Decades passed and the two never met.
That changed unexpectedly last year, when another offshore tragedy, the crash of Cougar Flight 491, brought them face to face.
Out of the inquiry into that tragedy, which claimed 17 lives, retired Justice Robert Wells made 29 recommendations to improve offshore helicopter safety.
An implementation team was assembled by the CNLOPB to act on Wells’ findings.
McKeage and Whelan were among those appointed to it because of their expertise. (Wells had recommended the offshore workforce be involved and Whalen was selected as the Hibernia rig’s rep.)
During a meeting in early January 2011 — almost 29 years after they faced a tragedy together — the men finally came face to face.
“At the coffee machine was this handsome young feller and it was John Whelan,” McKeage jokes.
They realized their connection within minutes.
“It was quite a moment for me,” McKeage adds.
The implementation team’s work has since wound down.
However, McKeage and Whelan are still working together on the CNLOPB’s helicopter operations and safety committee.
McKeage said it’s doing revolutionary work and Whelan is a huge part of it.
“John is the conscience of the offshore,” McKeage said. “It’s a handle he was given (when he was on) the team. He’s brought a great deal of experience and sensitivity.”
Part of that stems from the Ocean Ranger tragedy.
Whelan said he always thinks back to the fact that the rig had been inspected and some of the work it needed wasn’t done before it was sent back out on the ocean.
The lesson from that has stuck with him ever since.
“Safety always got to come first,” he said.