Recreating a miracle

Aaron Beswick
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Danish filmmakers in St. Anthony for rescue documentary

Kirby Reardon recently spent a morning on an icepan outside St. Anthony harbour with Danish filmmaker Jesper Nielsen.

"If we got in the water, could we climb back on?" asked Nielsen, his joke lost in his accent.

Reardon, a sealer and fisherman, looked coolly at the near zero-degree water and then back at Nielsen.

"I wouldn't recommend it."

St. Anthony's Kirby Reardon (left) and Danish filmmaker Jesper Nielsen stand on an icepan outside St. Anthony. The two were pretending to be downed pilots for a documentary. - Submitted photo

Then it was back to the difficult business of pretending to be pilots stranded in the Hudson Strait while hearing the laughter from Glen Penney's dragger, stationed nearby.

But it was a serious story - Nielsen and his co-worker at Danish television station TV 2, Nikolaj Venge, were creating a documentary of a Christmastime plane crash by two pilots and their subsequent rescue by the factory freezer trawler Atlantic Enterprise.

Troels Hansen, a Danish citizen, and Oliver Edwards-Neil, an Australian, were flying a Cessna Skymaster from Wabush to Iqaluit on Dec. 7, en route to Sweden, when oil pressure dropped in one of their engines.

"They'd just enjoyed the Arctic sunset," said Venge, who interviewed Hansen for the documentary. "One engine sounded like a braking train and he said he thought 'OK, we still have another engine.' Then the other engine went the same way."

They had four minutes to radio a mayday call and don survival suits before they crash landed on an ice-choked Hudson Strait in the dark, two weeks before Christmas.

"He'd imagined it would be like a swan gliding down, but when they hit the water, ice and water broke through the windows. That's when he closed his eyes - when he opened them again, the water was up to his neck and the plane was sinking fast. He got out under the water and pulled the inflatable handles on his survival suit, then he shot to the surface."

Hansen's heart raced for another minute before Edwards-Neil also burst to the surface, and the two swam to a nearby icepan. Then they stood up and looked around, their eyes adjusting to the cold Arctic night.

Their mayday call was some minor comfort, but not enough to keep their feet warm - so far from comfort it was hard for the two pilots to believe their message had been picked up by Canadian Search and Rescue. Yet, unbeknownst to them, that mayday had already taken on a life of its own - within hours, Swedish press was reporting on the death of the two pilots.

But the Atlantic Enterprise and its 28-man crew, including Northern Peninsula fishermen, hauled its trawl anyway and made 13.8 knots towards the plane's last known location.

"It's not the type of call you refuse," said Capt. Bo Mortensen, who was in St. Anthony with the filmmakers two weeks ago.

After steaming 18 hours to the scene and checking waypoints provided by search and rescue, they reached the last waypoint and were nearly ready to accept the expected - no survivors.

"We'd come to the last position and I radioed in that there was no one there, when one of the crew saw someone jumping on an icepan," recalled Mortensen. "I called back, and said, 'Wait a minute.'"

That tale of endurance through an Arctic night and survival against the odds captured Venge's imagination when he stumbled across it on the Internet. Soon he and Nielsen were on an adventure of their own.

"No, we're definitely here, we're in Saint John," he told Mortensen from a New Brunswick airport, thinking they were in Newfoundland's capital and wondering why the shrimping captain wasn't there to meet them as planned.

A long cab ride to Fredericton and another plane ticket and they were on the Rock.

"Troels was an amazing storyteller, but we needed pictures for television - we had to go somewhere that could make people imagine," said Venge.

St. Anthony offered ice and a location familiar to Mortensen. St. Anthony Cold Storage manager Jim Gibbons was enlisted to arrange accommodations, a boat and a good time.

So it was that Reardon found himself on an icepan, missing a joke and thinking a mad Dane wanted him to jump in the ocean.

The documentary is intended to air next fall on Danish television. Canadians may get the chance to see it if it's purchased by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Organizations: Atlantic Enterprise, Hansen's, Swedish press Canadian Broadcasting

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Arctic, Hudson Strait Wabush Iqaluit Sweden Northern Peninsula Saint John New Brunswick Newfoundland Fredericton

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