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Rig tells stories of the Ocean Ranger disaster

Many Newfoundlanders will recall where they were on February 15, 1982 when news of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger seeped into every home in this province.

A thirteen-year-old Mike Heffernan was at home in St. John's with his mother.

He recalls the stillness of his home being interrupted by the sound of the telephone.

Mr. Heffernan's grandmother was calling his mother to talk about the tragedy.

At that early hour everyone still held out hope of finding survivors.

Mr. Heffernan's father's cousin Ron was on the Ocean Ranger.

Eighty-four men went down with the rig. Fifty-six were Newfoundlanders. Only 22 bodies were recovered and returned to loved ones.Mr. Heffernan's relative was among those 22.

He has taken his family's loss and written a book about the disaster.

The project meant spending almost two years, researching, interviewing and writing.

A read of Heffernan's book Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster (Creative Publishers) confirms his efforts have not been in vain.

The book is the first complete collection of first-person stories from the victims' loved ones as well as detailed accounts of people who found themselves amid the horror.

People such as journalists, government officials and emergency responders.

Retired RNC Deputy Chief Gary Browne was one of those people.

Mr. Browne was acting director for the province's emergency measures organization at the time of the disaster.

"In my mind's eye, I can still see the bodies laid out in the temporary morgue and covered and the tags attached, the identification team going from gurney to gurney checking for personal effects, taking fingerprints and pictures," Mr. Browne recalls.

Mr. Browne goes on to talk about his reaction when glimpsing a body being taken from a supply ship to the temporary morgue.

"The sheet had just slipped down a bit. I saw his face, and it struck me like a ton of bricks. He had been my boyhood friend. He and I had gone to St. Bon's together right to Grade 8, grew up in the same area of Georgetown - he on Maxse Street and I on Belvedere Street - just a few hundred yards apart. We played basketball and handball in the country outside school and often walked home together. 'Oh, my God...' was all I could say."

Mr. Browne soon found out the man's wife was pregnant at the time of the disaster.

While Mr. Browne's work after the sinking was a daunting job and still leaves him with occasional nightmares, what the men's families have had to endure is a part of this province's history that must not be forgotten.

Thanks to Mr. Heffernan, it is now preserved in a manner which keeps the men's spirits alive, with stories that also echo the tremendous courage of those left behind.

"The book started off as a short story about the Ocean Ranger and after that I really became consumed with the topic," Mr. Heffernan says.

Mr. Heffernan admits there were a few interviews that he would have liked to include in the book but could not.

One was a former Universal Helicopter pilot. The company had been contracted to shuttle men to and from the rig. The pilot didn't respond to the author's request for an interview.

While there a few people unwilling to be interviewed, the majority of those Mr. Heffernan contacted were willing and anxious to talk.

And Mr. Heffernan spent many hours listening as parents and partners, wives and children wore their hearts on their sleeves, capturing the true character of the men they'd loved and lost.

The interviews were a great testament to the strength of the human spirit, Mr. Heffernan says.

In his epilogue, he cautions that the book is about memory and emotions rather than history.

"I've sat in dozens of living rooms, at kitchen tables and in coffee shops, offices and boardrooms... I've seen photo albums full of young men who never came home, read letters they wrote their wives from the rig, seen the check marks on the crew manifest beside the names of those who'd been found and identified. I guess you could say I've travelled among other people's pain," Mr. Heffernan writes.

A non-fiction read that contains many photographers published for the first time Rig is a book that should be read by every high school student in this province.

It's a book that all Newfoundlanders can relate to and one that will leave people feeling sad for the tremendous loss yet proud that, with time, people found the strength to pick up their lives and move on, carrying with them the memory of their loved one.

danette@nl.rogers.com



Taken from a story in Rig

Written by a partner, Sandra
"The Tuesday before the rig sank, I drove Gerald to the heliport, and I'm glad. He didn't want to go out because he had hurt his leg and made the decision at the last minute. Before he got out of the car, he said, 'the next time I come in you'll have the baby.' My final memory of Gerald is of him walking off towards the hangar, the sun just coming up over the horizon. Then, he was gone."
Two weeks after Gerald perished Sandra gave birth.
"During a routine check-up, my physician told me he could detect two heartbeats. He didn't want any surprises and he sent me for an ultrasound. It showed I was expecting twins. Of course, Gerald never knew we were going to have twins, and neither did I. They were born on March 1 - one at 8:44 in the evening and the other at 8:47 - the day their father would have finished his hitch, had he lived."
Sandra named her babies Matthew and Tim.
"I've often heard people who knew Gerald as a youngster say he'd never be dead as long as those boys are alive."

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