A new oral history of the Ocean Ranger disaster is based on interviews with those closely involved. This was a working class, blue-collar disaster,' says the author. I wanted those people to speak.'
A book that exposes the human and emotional costs of the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster - and sent its young author on a heart-rending journey - will be in stores early next month.
"Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster," is not a history book. It doesn't seek to shine a new light on why the rig toppled and sank. It's about memory and raw emotion, and about informing a new generation about the indelible mark the disaster has left on our collective psyche, says author Mike Heffernan.
"It's a snapshot of people's lives, and what they went through because of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger," says Heffernan, 30, a resident of St. John's.
"Rig" is published by Creative Book Publishing, and is Heffernan's first non-fiction book. It's been two years in the making, and came about because of Heffernan's family connection to the Ocean Ranger. His father's first cousin, Ron Heffernan, died in the disaster, and his body was one of only 22 recovered.
"I wanted to know who he was. When Ron Heffernan died it didn't impact me in any way, but over time his death had a major influence on the direction I took my life," the author says.
Each chapter is based on an interview he did with either a rig worker, family member of a victim, emergency responder, priest, government official or news reporter. There are 36 in all. From those interviews, Heffernan wrote what he calls self-contained narratives, similar to a short story of roughly 2,000 words each.
In the days leading up to the 25th anniversary of the event, in February 2007, Heffernan wrote a short story about the disaster. After that, he became consumed by the incident and decided to do more.
"I didn't do this to sell books. I did this because I had to do it," he says.
Don't expect new revelations about the design and construction flaws that contributed to the sinking, or first-time accounts about the lack of proper safety training, survival suits and equipment. That's all been probed and highly publicized.
Instead, Heffernan wanted to put a human face on the tragedy, and sought to accomplish that by talking with people like Gary Wall, a wireline operator who left the Ocean Ranger the day before it sank.
"I got the 'why me?' syndrome," Walls says in a chapter called The 85th Man.
"I thought, 'Why wasn't I out there? How come I was so lucky and no one else was?' I still thank God every day for being alive."
There are heart-wrenching stories about wives who had their lives turned upside down, about children who became orphans, about mothers who fought for answers and justice, and former crewmembers who hated the working conditions, quietly living in fear for their safety, but carrying on because of the high wages.
Some spoke of being hired "off the street" without any formal training or experience, while others expressed disdain for the arrogance displayed by some of the Americans onboard the rig.
"They thought they were well over our heads," crane operator John Crowe stated.
Those who took part in futile rescue efforts also remain haunted by the images they witnessed.
"As we got closer, we started to come upon sparkles in the water. The realization then hit us that those were lifejackets and men floating just below the surface - dead," said Patrick Fahey, second mate aboard the Nordertor, a supply vessel on standby duty at another rig in the area that night.
Heffernan's research included nearly 50 interviews, but only those from the "working class" made it into the book.
"This was a working class, blue-collar disaster. I wanted those people to speak. I didn't wan the elites. I didn't want the (then-energy minister) Tom Marshalls and Alex Hickmans, the guy who headed the royal commission. They were the elites and I didn't want them in there. I wanted to speak to the emotional cost of this disaster to the community," he says.
At first, Heffernan was uncertain that people would want to dredge up the past. But he was pleasantly surprised.
"People were very receptive. They wanted to talk," he said.
In addition to interviews, Heffernan immersed himself in news coverage from the period. Eventually, it took an emotional toll.
"Grief has a way of attaching itself to people. As I went along and I was watching documentaries on the Ocean Ranger, I'd start to cry. I'd ask myself, why am I crying?"
He said the most difficult interview was with his second cousin, Elaine, Ron Heffernan's sister. They were living together at the time of the tragedy, and Elaine, a single mother, was devastated by her brother's death.
The experience has strengthened the bond between Heffernan and his five-year-old daughter, Anja.
"I think about the emotions my daughter would feel if I was stolen from her, because these guys were stolen from their families," he says.
Some facts about the Ocean Ranger, a self-propelled semi-submersible offshore drilling rig that sank on the Grand Banks on Feb. 15, 1982:
All 84 crew, 56 of whom were Newfoundlanders, perished. Only 22 crew members' bodies were recovered.
A subsequent royal commission determined that "horrendous labour conditions" and design flaws made the disaster inevitable.
The rig began drilling the Hibernia field on contract between Mobil Oil Canada, the operator of the Hibernia Consortium, and ODECO Drilling of Canada in November 1980.
The Ocean Ranger sank during a fierce winter storm in the North Atlantic, roughly 175 nautical miles east of St. John's.