A pair of red flares spotted off the east end of Bell Island Monday night resulted in the Canadian Coast Guard calling in a provincial ferry, with passengers onboard, for a search and rescue effort.
Passengers loaded onto the MV Beaumont Hamel in Portugal
Cove-St. Philip’s about 7:10 p.m., preparing for a crossing to the island.
At 7:15 p.m., according to Kevin Barnes, regional supervisor for maritime search and rescue with the coast guard, two emergency flares were spotted not far from the island.
In such cases, coast guard radio operators broadcast for any boats in the area, Barnes said.
The master of any boat receiving the broadcast must respond to the radio call and make the coast guard aware of its location.
Rescue co-ordinators then decide on what boats will be sent to the rescue. Under the Canada Shipping Act, co-ordinators can dispatch vessels as they see fit.
“In this case, the Beaumont Hamel was the closest and, in this case, it was only tasked to a position about two miles from where she was,” Barnes said.
At 7:20 p.m., the coast guard sent the ferry to the area where the flares were spotted.
“Within 30 minutes (the ferry) was there and had done a quick search.”
A longer search would be needed.
“So within 30 minutes of initially tasking the Beaumont Hamel, the (coast guard vessel) Cape Roger was tasked from St. John’s. That vessel was underway within 30 minutes and proceeded to that area,” Barnes said.
The Beaumont Hamel was released from its search and rescue service at 9:10 p.m., while the Cape Roger was still en route.
The ferry was released, “because we started getting other information,” Barnes said, noting the RCMP was investigating on the island. “Because there were different reports that possibly this could have happened, that somebody may have discharged (the flares) from the island itself.”
There were no reports of missing persons in the area and no overdue vessels.
RCMP on the island told The Telegram they were contacted at 7:30 p.m. by Canadian Coast Guard personnel. The RCMP reported what could be seen on the water from the island. Officers then began a search of “common areas,” lasting about three hours.
Meanwhile, the Cape Roger arrived shortly after 11 p.m. and searched the water for several hours, to no avail.
Complaints over response
More than one complaint has since been made publicly in regards to the response.
A Bell Island resident whose wife was on board the Beaumont Hamel, Ken Kavanagh, contacted the coast guard and then VOCM.
“When my wife called me on her cellphone, although she was a little disconcerted about being involved in search and rescue from a ferry, I said it’s normal, it’s necessary and not to worry. But the thing dragged out for more than two hours,” he told The Telegram Tuesday.
“It’s in the area, it’s already on the water and if it can save somebody’s life, that’s fine,” he said, of the ferry’s use. He objected to the Canadian Coast Guard not immediately responding with coast guard resources.
“You do the math, we’re talking close to a four-hour response time (for the Cape Roger). That is absolutely horrendous. I can’t believe in this day and age that a life is so meaningless to our federal government that they would have a response time of four hours,” he said.
He said he feels the coast guard “should have mobilized other resources.”
In speaking with The Telegram, Barnes suggested the fastest response possible was that of the closest vessel, the Beaumont Hamel. He said a red flare could indicate a person in the water or a sinking ship.
“It’s no different than a person declaring a mayday or whatever, and we have to treat it as such,” he said.
As for the red flares that instigated the search effort?
“We couldn’t confirm exactly where it came from,” he said. “Based on the best information, it appears they may have been set off by somebody on the island itself and shot out over the water, but we can’t confirm that.”
He said there are “numerous cases” every year, wherein the improper use and disposal of flares have led to false alarms.