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Jeff Boutcher remembers his mother waking him up.
An oil rig was in trouble and she wanted to know which rig his brother was on. David had worked on them all.
Jeff quickly realized his brother had given him a T-shirt from the rig before he went to sea.
He hauled it out. It said, Ocean Ranger.
The T-shirt suddenly became the family’s unofficial confirmation David was indeed on the ill-fated rig.
Their lives changed forever.
Jeff is from my hometown, Corner Brook, N.L.
I didn’t know him, but I knew of him for two reasons.
He was an incredible skater who floated effortlessly around Humber Gardens during general skating.
He was also the guy who lost an older brother on the Ocean Ranger.
In a place that’s had its collective heart torn apart by disasters at sea, the semi-submersible rig’s sinking is among the most devastating.
It went down during a vicious winter storm on Feb. 15, 1982, some 267 kilometres east of St. John’s. The lives of 84 crew members were lost. Two divers would later die trying to move the wreckage.
The tragedy left Newfoundland and Labrador grieving and in a state of shock.
I was in Grade 8, and vividly remember a sombre discussion about the disaster at our lockers outside the industrial arts room at Curling Junior High.
A precious shirt he can't wear
“Let me introduce myself as Jeff, brother of David Boutcher,” the email started.
No introduction was needed. I knew exactly who Jeff was.
Knowing I was a Bartlett from Corner Brook in the media, he wrote to tell me about his Ocean Ranger T-shirt, the one that had informed his family that fateful morning.
Jeff has only worn it once, shortly after the tragedy.
“You know what it’s like growing up in small-town Newfoundland,” he told me during a subsequent call. “Someone said, ‘What are you wearing that for? They are all dead.’ And with that, I took it and put it in my dresser drawer.”
He kept it in drawers wherever he moved, including at various addresses in Ontario where he went to live and work 37 years ago.
Ocean Ranger reminders follow Jeff.
He’s made sure of that. His son Devin, a tattoo artist living in Alberta, has inked an image of the rig and David’s face on Jeff’s arm. (He has another son, Brent, who lives in Ontario.)
But there have been other, seemingly random, moments of connection.
A few years ago, it was a chance meeting with a Newfoundlander in downtown Toronto — a city of 2.93 million — whose uncle was on the Ocean Ranger.
In 1999, Jeff made an unexpected find as he started to tear up the floor of an old cottage: a newspaper with coverage of the rig’s sinking.
“I don’t like to say the word haunted, but it has definitely haunted me all through my life,” Jeff says.
The comfort of cotton
T-shirts can do a lot of things for people, including keeping them covered and making them feel comfortable.
The Ocean Ranger shirt has done that for Jeff, emotionally.
Every Feb. 15 since 1982, he has taken the shirt out, held it in his hands, and thought about his brother.
The memories include times at the family cabin and rabbit hunting, as well as David’s love of photography.
“Dave was 24. I was 16. We still shared the same bedroom. To me, I struggled with it … because of how close Dave and I once were."
Jeff admits he used to feel ashamed to cry or talk about his loss.
“I think the hardest part was there was never any closure. There was no body. There was no funeral. … (I was) the age of 16, my brother had gone to work for another shift, and he never came back. Like, how do you go to work and not come back? I struggle with that.”
Saying goodbye to a momento
This year will be Jeff’s first Feb. 15 without the Ocean Ranger shirt.
When he was in St. John’s September past, he donated it to The Rooms, the provincial museum and archives.
He hopes that one day it will be part of a display about the lives of those lost on the rig and in other marine tragedies.
The challenge, he acknowledges, is that there aren't many physical artifacts from the Ocean Ranger.
Still, he’d love for there to be a display or something in place by 2022, the 40th anniversary of the sinking.
By giving the shirt to The Rooms, he hopes it might bring comfort to someone else who lost a loved one when the rig went down.
“Hopefully someone’s son or daughter can actually see something physical.”
Without the T-shirt to hold this year, Jeff expected to spend some time reading about the Ranger and thinking about David.
“February is a blue month for me,” he says. “There hasn’t been a Valentine’s Day since that.”
While the lead-up to the anniversary is always emotional, he had something special to smile about this week.
He met his first grandson, born in November, for the first time.
“Finally, my February frown gets turned upside down,” he told Brent.
No doubt as the child gets older, he’ll learn about his great-uncle David.
Maybe one day, he’ll visit The Rooms and see the simple T-shirt that guided his poppy through some dark days.