Money talks

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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Two highly publicized events of recent days and weeks - the poignant testimony of relatives of the victims of the Cougar Helicopter crash and the all-grins announcement of the multi-billion-dollar Hibernia South agreement - were unsettling bookends, it seemed to me, to the anniversary of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger.

In fact, all three belong on the same shelf, in the conflict of interest section, where tears mingle with smiles, tragedy with dollars, and expediency with safety, all arising from an offshore oil industry that has delivered much material gain to Newfoundland, but has charged an immeasurable price in human suffering.

Two highly publicized events of recent days and weeks - the poignant testimony of relatives of the victims of the Cougar Helicopter crash and the all-grins announcement of the multi-billion-dollar Hibernia South agreement - were unsettling bookends, it seemed to me, to the anniversary of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger.

In fact, all three belong on the same shelf, in the conflict of interest section, where tears mingle with smiles, tragedy with dollars, and expediency with safety, all arising from an offshore oil industry that has delivered much material gain to Newfoundland, but has charged an immeasurable price in human suffering.

Highs with lows

Even as acting premier Kathy Dunderdale was slowly and joyfully annunciating every syllable of the thir-teen-bil-lion-dol-lar bundle that will eventually find its way into Newfoundland coffers, the province was marking the 28th anniversary of the death of 84 men on the Ocean Ranger, and was still reeling from the much more recent, tearful questions from the Cougar crash victim relatives about what they felt were the needless deaths of their loved ones.

There's hardly a soul, I guess, who wouldn't begrudge Dunderdale and her government colleagues (especially the recuperating premier, Danny Williams) the chance to howl about the latest oil revenues.

And we can't help but applaud.

But it was ironic (and that's probably way too weak a word) that a story of more offshore wealth was mixed with the two tragedies to tell all of us, in such palpably gut-wrenching terms, of the price of prosperity (and yes, I belabour the point, as it should be belaboured).

What's memorable

Other than the direct participants in the Hibernia South announcement, not many people will remember years from now where they were when the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed on the latest oil revenue document.

But this generation will never forget where they were the day the Cougar helicopter went down, the same way members of my generation can recall vividly what they were doing when the Ocean Ranger sank.

Still vivid

The newsroom at "Here and Now" where I was working in 1982 was a smoky, noisy place on that day, when the magnitude of the tragedy transformed us into Newfoundlanders first, CBC journalists second, and we awaited the names of the victims, assuming, as did just about everyone else in the province, that we would know someone who had died, or know someone who knew someone who had died.

Typewriters were clanging away, every phone in the place was ringing (at least it seemed that way, as people from the around the world sought information from local journalists), and people were barking and receiving orders from every corner of the room.

But you could hear a pin drop when a CBC producer walked into the newsroom and placed a stack of papers on the main desk.

We all knew, instinctively, that it was the list of victims.

We all stopped what we were doing, in mid-word if we were typing, putting the phone down if we happened to be making a call.

And all proceeded, slowly, like a hushed procession, to the pile of papers, each of us taking a copy of the list, and walking sombrely back to our desks, already starting to quickly peruse the names to see if we had a personal connection.

Very close to home

As it turned out, Ken O'Brien, the son of a highly respected and well-liked CBC cameraman, John O'Brien, was on the list, and the tragedy hit home immediately.

I also have vivid memories of the Ocean Ranger disaster from eight years ago, when I produced a one hour documentary, "And Nobody Found Him," for a national CBC program called "The Passionate Eye," made to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the sinking, and spent many an hour with relatives of the oil rig victims.

All of them talked as if their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons had died that week; they were absolutely haunted back then, 20 years later, as they remain today, I'm sure, by the tragedy that altered their lives forever.

And again

Now we have another group of mourners, another inquiry, another announcement of more oil money for Newfoundland.

And a pledge to improve safety offshore.

But the danger of working in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland will not abate.

And the almighty dollar will always call the shots.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Hibernia South, Atlantic Ocean

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