For Michelle Donlon-Richburg, a South Carolinian who lost both her father and uncle in the Ocean Ranger disaster, attending the annual memorial service was like coming home. Each year, St. Pius X Parish commemorates the loss of the 84 men who died aboard the drill rig, which sank Feb. 15, 1982 during a severe weather storm 175 nautical miles east of St. John's. It was Canada's worst marine tragedy since the end of the Second World War and the annual memorial service is organized by a committee of students and faculty within Gonzaga High School. Five of the 56 Newfoundlanders who died in the disaster were alumni.
It is a solemn and quiet place for reflection and remembrance, a place where the families continue to come together to heal.
"I've always wanted to come here," Donlon-Richburg said after she reached St. John's. "Once I found out there was a monument, I told my mother that's where I wanted to go."
Thomas Donlan's body wasn't among the 22 recovered, leaving Donlon-Richburg wondering, searching to fill an emotional void. "We don't have a gravesite. I tried to convince my mother to get a plaque to put in the cemetery with his name on it, but she kept saying he wasn't there. We have nowhere to go."
She remembers her father was a big man, kind and full of joy. People genuinely loved him. He often told her she was the smart one, special. "He was a good man," she said, "and sacrificed a lot for his family. I want people to know that."
Her father had decided to stay home from the rig that final trip to finish remodelling the kitchen, but changed his mind at the last minute. She often wonders what could have been.
The disaster received little attention in the United States, and Donlan's death was only a blurb on the local news. "No one there can relate, except for my family," she explained. "It's so different here. Everybody knows."
Many families, like Donlon's, didn't get the closure that comes with a funeral and burial. Twenty-eight years later, many of the connections and friendships born out of the disaster and the Ocean Ranger Families Foundation have faded. The memorial service and monument on Confederation Hill lets them know that the victims have not been forgotten. They are tangible links to the past. But for the families of the 15 Americans who perished, there was little communal support. After her uncle's funeral, Donlon-Richburg's extended family slowly drifted apart. She isn't quite sure why. "People grieve in different ways. But I don't think severing all ties was very healthy."
As a teenager, Donlon-Richburg struggled with coming to terms with her father's death, and it continued to haunt her into adulthood. "You can't get past it," she said. Her family was Catholic. Each week the children attended Sunday school. A statue of Mary sat on the family's front lawn. "I quit going to church. I had this terrible anger towards God," she explained.
Years later, deep-seated resentments lingered. "It kept us in the rut of grieving." At the dinner table, her father often talked about accidents and lifeboats which wouldn't lower. He said a company safety man had come out to the rig in January, but never checked anything. She was 12, the second of six children, and never understood the gravity of what her father was saying. "I'm his age now, and it makes me so mad. Why didn't they get those men off that rig?"
Two years ago, Donlon-Richburg contacted the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB). She spoke to public relations and was surprised by the response. "I told them the story, where I was from, that my dad and uncle were on the Ocean Ranger. They knew what I was talking about immediately."
"I don't know if this will make you feel better or not," Sean Kelly, manager of public relations, told her, "but I want you to know that there's not a soul here who doesn't care about what happened."
"I cried and cried and cried," she said. "He must've thought I was a crazy person. But I knew then my father hadn't been forgotten."
Until this year, it was impossible for her to make the trip. "I've been trying to get here for almost 30 years."
She said she had been searching for something: her father, answers, maybe.
"That's why I had to come here. My husband said, 'You're still not over it, Michelle.'"
On the 28th anniversary of Thomas Donlon's death, his daughter was there for the first time to hear his name read aloud with the other crewmen. She sat a few pews back, amongst the other families, and accepted a carnation on behalf of the school and the parish. "This has been the experience of my lifetime."
Later that day, she went to Signal Hill overlooking St. John's, to the ocean. She went to the memorial site where the eighty-four victims of the Ocean Ranger disaster are listed on a copper plate placed against a cedar wall. She traced her father's name on paper with chalk, for her family back in South Carolina. "He's here. I know that now," she said. "His memory is here. I've finally found closure."
Mike Heffernan was born and raised in St. John's. He is the author of "Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster," which is being adapted for the stage. His most recent work has appeared in Riddle Fence and performed on CBC Radio. He is currently working on "The Other Side of Midnight: Taxi Cab Stories."