Annual Gonzaga service remembers Ocean Ranger victims

Danette Dooley
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Gonzaga High School remembered the 84 victims of the Ocean Ranger Wednesday in a memorial service marking the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

During the service at St. Pius X church in St. John’s, the men were remembered through music, song, prayer, a moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony.

Five of the men who died in the tragedy were Gonzaga graduates. Many of the victims’ family members attend the service every year.

Noreen O’Neill’s husband, Paschal O’Neill, died in the disaster. The couple’s son was nine months old at the time.

O’Neill offered her thanks to the students on behalf of the victims’ families. The anniversary of the disaster is a heartbreaking day for the families, who are still reeling from the loss of their loved one, she said.

“I woke up to the chatter of my infant son. I turned on the radio, as every morning, and the news was far from routine. We were given a new path to walk that day and this is where it has led us for the past 30 years.”

O’Neill said families continue to draw strength from each other and find peace in attending the memorial service. She thanked Gonzaga for continuing to hold the service each year. She also echoed other people’s remarks about the importance of offshore safety.

“We need to stay positive in our pleas for an increase in search and rescue, improvement in safety standards, new development in equipment, common sense and always safety first,” O’Neill said.

Twenty-one-year-old Greg Tiller of Mount Pearl was one of the victims.

Tiller was a gifted poet. His friend Steve Porter compiled a book of Tiller’s poetry titled “Random Thoughts: Memories and Writings of Greg Tiller” (DRC Publishing, 2009). The book combines Tiller’s poetry and other writings with memories and stories from his family and friends.

In his introduction to “Random Thoughts,” another Mount Pearl native, Geoff Meeker, describes Tiller as “a gifted writer, with the soul of an artist.”

“Had he lived, I am convinced our province would have another writer of the stature of Des Walsh, Wayne Johnston and Ed Riche,” Meeker wrote.

Evelyn Tiller said her son’s trip to sea was to be his last. Greg was planning on going to university to study journalism, she said.

Greg Tiller’s sister, Geri Tiller, said Greg was a fantastic brother and “absolutely wonderful” to their mother.

“He looked after her … and I’m just so glad that Gonzaga is keeping the victims’ memories alive because this is keeping all of us remembering what they sacrificed,” she said.

Geri Tiller refers to the search and rescue situation in the province as “appalling.”

“It should be based in Newfoundland and it’s time that government take a look at this and the Harper government needs to pay attention to what’s going on here,” she said.

Gonzaga principal Edward van Nostrand said the Ocean Ranger disaster is part of the school’s history.

“It is time for us all to remember how fragile life truly is. It is a time for us all to think of others, to reach out to those who are suffering in so many ways in this world, and to provide them with comfort,” he said.

Gonzaga student Katherine Brown spoke at the service about the significance of the Ocean Ranger to the students.

“It is important to remember that this day is so much more than a ceremony; it’s part of our story as a seafaring people. If we are to change the story, we must mourn with those who remember,” Brown said.

Brown said it’s also important to “work to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.”

“We will not fall into apathy, because in celebrating lives lived, and mourning lives lost, we ensure that lives will be saved,” she said.

After the service, people made their way to the Confederation Building for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ocean Ranger memorial site. Wreaths were laid on behalf of families, students and the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association.

Corner Brook Coun. Priscilla Boutcher’s son, David Boutcher, died in the disaster. The 24-year-old, who worked on the rig for more than a year, took photos of the crew members and their work on the Ocean Ranger.

Boutcher said she planned on showing the photo album to the victims’ family members at a reception held at The Rooms following the service.

Her concern today, she said, is about search and rescue capabilities in this province.

“Whether it’s one life or 10, a tragedy is a tragedy. And governments have to take more responsibility to make sure we have more efficient search and rescue here in Newfoundland and Labrador. And what we have, surely God, keep it here.”

Bill O’Neill of Fermeuse worked on the Ocean Ranger about a week before it sank. He knew many of the men who died, including his best friend, Paschal O’Neill, who was also from Fermeuse, but was not related to him.

During an interview after the wreath-laying ceremony, O’Neill recalled an incident that happened on the rig during his final trip on the semi-submersible.

“They were taking on fuel from the supply boats and normally when they take on fuel on one side they take on ballast (sea water) on the opposite side to keep the rig level.”

Someone hit the wrong switch, O’Neill said, and the rig began taking on water on the same side it was taking on fuel. The human error caused the rig to list, he said.

The men were told to get out of their bunks. They headed to the lifeboat station. However, he said, no alarm was sounded to indicate an emergency.

O’Neill recalled a gathering on board the rig after the incident.

“The toolpusher came in and said to the safety guys, ‘Did you tell the guys there’s nothing to worry about, that she couldn’t sink anyway.’ Famous last words,” O’Neill said.

Organizations: Gonzaga High School, Pius X church, DRC Publishing Confederation Building Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association.Corner Brook Coun

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Newfoundland and Labrador, Fermeuse

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