As one who spends a fair bit of time wandering at the ocean's edge, often with my children, Sunday's rogue wave at Middle Cove sent a shudder up my spine.
According to a story at cbc.ca, four people were rescued when a massive wave crashed onto the beach, reaching all the way to the parking lot. If you've ever been to Middle Cove Beach, you will recall how far that terrace is from the ocean.
This is not the first time that rogue waves have pummeled Middle Cove Beach or other parts of the province, for that matter.
In 1989, sea states at Middle Cove deteriorated suddenly, killing one diver who was body surfing in the area and the three men all members of the Coast Guard who tried to rescue him. I will bring you a story about that event near the end of this post.
But first, I draw your attention to the comments section of the CBC story, wherein the real story lies hidden. A lady named SusieS posts that she was on the beach when the wave hit, and goes on to describe the event in great detail. As she points out, the beach was populated with two to three dozen people, and that up to 24 people might have been rescued.
"People were dragged out, under the force of the wave," she wrote. "A LOT of unsung heroes came from that event, and the media only reported four. I suspect that that is the direct result of all of us soaking, injured, scared people running to our cars and getting out of there. By the time I left rescue vehicles were just arriving and over half of those who were present when the wave hit had already left. Families took their screaming, soaking children out of there as quickly as possible."
Here is the complete text of SusieS's comments:
I was on the beach last night when this happened. The media says 4 people were rescued. Probably more like 24 rescued. Here is an excerpt from an email I sent to a couple of friends last night, when they asked what happened: "We were at the beach for hours this evening, watching Mother Nature's amazing show. The waves were huge, and were crashing big time up on the beach. After a couple of hours of that (where EVERYBODY was up on the parking lot and the very top of the beach), the waves subsided.. they went down the beach about 100 feet... We kept an eye for about an hour, and it didn't pick up any. So gradually everyone started moving back on the beach, starting bonfires. There were about 2 - 3 dozen people on the beach, with bonfires, when this HUGE wave crashed, knocking everybody over. We were right up against the back of the beach, up almost on the hill (because I was with friends who had 2 kids, a 5-month old and a 7 year old). So, to be safe, we made our bonfire on the very top of the beach. Our chairs were actually on the bottom of the bank. When the huge wave crashed, it pushed us up the bank. Everything we had got dragged out, the baby was being held by his mom, and as she tried to run the water hit her half-way up her back. A stranger grabbed her little girl and threw her up on the bank. Scores of people were being dragged out by the tide, with all sorts of strangers grabbing them and pulling them back. One of the friends with me dragged an elderly lady from the water. Two women and three children were dragged out, with one of the kids ultimately being deposited on a bank by the wave, soaked from head to toe. One mom said she didn't know how long she was under until a man grabbed her - she said she thought she was going to die. Everybody was screaming and running... In the end I found one of the chairs we were sitting on about 50 feet from us. My camera, stereo system (speakers, iPod, etc) were under the water and dragged out. I recovered them, but the camera is toast.... This event was truly the stuff nightmares are made of. I called the police, as did others on the beach, and they sent fire and rescue to make sure everybody got out. From what we know, they did, but there may have been parties further over that we didn't see or didn't get to speak to...
At this point, a poster named Prairie Boy offers some scientific explanation for the rogue wave phenomenon, including a link to a page full of information. The pictures and text make for dramatic browsing. Susie thanks Prairie Dog, then adds more information:
Of great interest, when my friend said "Look at that...", I turned to the left and looked out. There was a wall of water coming. Across the rest of the horizon the waves were pretty symmetrical, but to the left that one wave was probably between 20-30 feet in height. It was probably only 40-50 or so feet across. It was definitely out of place. As soon as we spotted it, we started to run, but we still were hit (and so quickly it was almost shocking). I will never forget the sight! You are correct that it is nothing but pure, fantastic luck that nobody died. People were dragged out, under the force of the wave. A LOT of unsung heroes came from that event, and the media only reported four. I suspect that that is the direct result of all of us soaking, injured, scared people running to our cars and getting out of there. By the time I left rescue vehicles were just arriving and over half of those who were present when the wave hit had already left. Families took their screaming, soaking children out of there as quickly as possible. I need to say Thank You again to the heroes!
Sorry, I do need to add this: I said the wave was about 40-50 feet at the base The wave actually looked this wide from my vantage point, when first spotted. It was obviously much, much bigger than I first thought it to be, since it covered the entire beach when it crashed. I turned and ran when I spotted it, so I can't fully detail how it built / what it looked like as it came ashore. From first glimpse, that was my analysis of it. Large enough for my primitive 'fight or flight' instincts to kick in and get my body moving.
There are other comments on the CBC story that are worth reading, and some that aren't including the moronic statement that this was a "Newfie carnival ride."
In October of 2004, Brian Callahan, then of The Telegram, wrote an in-depth feature on the 15th anniversary of the 1989 incident at Middle Cove. I've had an ongoing interest in this incident since it occurred I remember the day vividly and so I asked at the time for an electronic copy of the story, which has been in my files ever since. Here it is:
Diver recalls tragic day
Thursday, October 21, 2004
By Brian Callahan
Fifteen years ago this week, hundreds of onlookers gasped in horror as a rogue wave swamped a coast guard rescue boat in Middle Cove, bringing to four the number drowned in the infamous tragedy.
Three of the victims were in the small boat, trying to recover the body of Leonard Caul, 33, a diver earlier pulled underwater by rapidly worsening sea conditions.
First Officer Greg Peddle, 34, Leading Seaman Raymond Welcher, 24, and Senior Engineer Pierre Gallion, 30, were lost in the operation.
Few remember the events of that day as well as Bob Connolly, one of the nine divers who ventured into what had been a tame cove several hours earlier.
It was Sunday, Oct. 15, 1989, and the group began the day in Torbay, where Connolly and Dave Squires - both assistant instructors - were teaching a course in underwater navigation.
All were certified divers of varying degrees.
It was determined, however, that the water was too murky and the dive was called off.
"The conditions weren't right. In order to scuba dive, you have to have underwater visibility," Connolly, a St. John's firefighter for the last six years, said in an interview Wednesday.
He noted poor weather the night before likely stirred up the ocean floor, creating murky conditions.
"We didn't have (the visibility) in Torbay. And you have to see what's down there to do the course. Why else go down?"
Remembering that lead instructor Joe Mokry was teaching a course at nearby Middle Cove, the group drove there.
"We didn't want to just head home," recalled the personable Connolly, now in his mid-30s.
"We had all come out there, we had all our gear, it was all planned ... just like any sport, really. We were like, 'Why waste the day?'"
Having experienced conditions similar to those in Torbay, Mokry had cancelled his dive, too.
But after some discussion, Mokry, Squires and Connolly - the most experienced of the group - decided to at least get in the water to do some "body surfing."
The technique is used in rescues from a rescue boat, where the diver will ease into a rip tide - noticeable by lines of discolouration in the water - and ride the current and swell to the victim.
Connolly recalls distinctly there was nothing unusual or threatening about the conditions at that point.
"We were just going out to splash around, muck around in it, use some rip tides to carry us out and time some swells," he said, adding it was safe enough then for the others to join them.
Wearing wetsuits, gloves and head gear, they waded in at about 2 p.m. But what they didn't know - what no one knew - was that those same currents and tides were about to change dramatically.
A judicial inquiry and coast guard report noted the group could not have foreseen the sudden change in conditions.
The latter - through documentation obtained from a nearby sea buoy - confirmed the vast change in "sea state," the result of an underwater disturbance that originated near Greenland.
"The (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) buoy recorded the ocean conditions and was able to prove the change in conditions within a half-hour (of when we went into the water)," said Connolly.
"They had actual scientific documentation of what happened to us. Whatever way that disturbance underwater was travelling, it ended up around Middle Cove.
"So, it wasn't a matter of being a novice or being stupid or being anything. It was just bad timing."
The term body surfing, said Connolly, is somewhat misleading.
"The rip tide can carry you out, and then you get in the swell of a wave, and use your body to hook on and ride the wave back in."
Coincidentally, Connolly had visited Middle Cove only a few days earlier while out for a drive.
"We were just parked there watching a family with a small child running down by the ocean, teasing the waves," he said.
"The parents were about 15 feet from this little girl, and I kept thinking that if she gets caught by a wave, the rip currents will take her before anyone knows what happened."
That very scenario was about to play itself out, only with experienced scuba divers.
What many don't know, is that Leonard Caul wasn't the only one to run into trouble.
"At first, everything was fine. But everyone started getting separated from each other, with the currents changing direction and strength," Connolly said.
Connolly turned to spot a diver who'd been carried further from shore and was obviously beginning to panic.
"He was by himself ... and getting really nervous.
"I swam to him - he was in quite a state of panic by then - and I gave a distress signal in the air. I mean, he was in distress, and that's when anything can happen. He could start climbing on top of me and drown us both ..."
Squires managed to reach the pair and they began to plot their way to shore.
"At that point, everything just started getting out of hand. The weather, the sea - everything just started increasing dramatically."
The distressed diver was visibly tired and couldn't swim anymore, at which point Connolly told him to lie on his back and kick when he could.
"Then we took an arm each and began to tow him in."
But it wasn't easy.
The three were now about 800 metres from Middle Cove Beach.
"We knew then the sea state was getting even worse. We were a long distance from shore and headed out to sea, no doubt about it. We were almost to the point where we were outside Middle Cove."
The only way to shore was to swim north against the current and wind, which was pushing them toward the southern jagged cliffs of the cove.
Little did they know that Caul was also in trouble and losing his battle with the sea.
Connolly has no idea how long he was in the water, but he recalls his exit - knocked face first into the beach rocks by a surging wave.
"We never knew Leonard was in trouble till we got to shore. But we knew then he was gone."
Caul's body was caught in a current that washed him toward an outcrop in the right-hand corner of the cove.
By then, Connolly said, waves were crashing 15 feet "and maybe higher" against the rocks.
Police, firefighters and other rescuers were on the scene, trying to organize a recovery as literally hundreds perched precariously along the cliffs to watch the drama unfold.
It culminated when the coast guard fast rescue craft (FRC) - which had been waiting almost 30 minutes for the right time to move in - was flipped by a wave no one saw coming.
"It had been so rough, and all of a sudden the sea just calmed. There was a complete lull in the waves," said Connolly.
"And it was so strange, because everyone saw that, and people were yelling, 'Go, go, now, now.' There was so much public pressure to do it ...
"It was horrific. It was just horrific to stand there and watch it all happen."
Connolly said while he has visited Middle Cove many times since the accident, he'll never dive there again.
"I still dive, but I've told myself I'll never go in the water there again.
"It's not for fear of the area. I've basically shunned the place out of respect for what happened there.
"I knew that this was an accident, and none of our faults. So there was no real blame to shoulder, you know? And I think that made it a little easier to go back (to diving)."
That newfound respect travels beyond the cove; he can't say enough about the day-in, day-out heroics of the coast guard.
"They go to work every day and do their job. Their job is to risk their lives. And I just have so much admiration for that. It's so unselfish. And that's really stayed with me.
"They do they best they can and, please God, they'll come home the next day."
That example of dedication to human life - in no small way - likely led him to his career choice.
"It's similar to what I do now. I don't go to work thinking about a fire I might have to fight, or a rescue I might have to perform, or a life I'm gonna have to save.
"I just go to work and I just do it, and whatever comes up you just deal with it.
"It's the job."
Connolly and his wife of four years are now expecting their first child.
He admitted it was a strange experience the day he walked her through that day in Middle Cove.
"We went down there, walked the beach, went right over to the corner (where the boat capsized). She's just thankful that I'm here, I guess.
"But I really feel for the people who lost someone that day," he said, noting the group often visited Caul's widow in the weeks, months and years after the accident.
"I mean, I'm still here and they're not. And it could easily have been me."