Voices from the Ocean Ranger disaster

One of N.L.’s most tragic stories is still being told 35 years on


Published on February 12, 2017

Janet Edmonds plays the voice of Elaine, a woman whose brother was lost on the Ocean Ranger, in “Rig— Voices from the Ocean Ranger, “ running at The Rooms this week. Based on the book by Mike Heffernan, the play was written by Joan Sullivan and tells the story of the tragedy through the voices of people connected with it. Here, Edmonds and Steve Oates rehearse a scene.

©Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

“Craig was my oldest boy but the youngest on the rig, He was 19,” Patricia Ryan, mother of Craig Tilley, who died on the Ocean Ranger, says.

Wendi: As mother Patricia Ryan, actress Wendi Smallwood tells of the death of 19-year-old Craig Tilley, who perished in the Ocean Ranger disaster 35 years ago this week.
Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

“Only 22 families got the peace of mind that comes with a burial Even though Craig was dead, I knew where he was — I had him. The companies soon disappeared, took cover like a bunch of rats, and my frustrations boiled over. I thought, those bastards aren’t getting away with this.”

Ryan’s words come from the transcript of an interview with local author Mike Heffernan, published in his 2009 book, “Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster” (Creative Books). Heffernan spent two years collecting information about the tragedy, poring over the inquiry transcripts and interviewing people connected to it, including family members of the men who perished.

He grew up knowing as much about the disaster as any other school kid, though he had a personal connection: one of the men who died, Ron Heffernan, was his dad’s first cousin. Propelled by a love of oral history and a desire to learn more about Ron, Heffernan decided to write the book.
“I just started picking up the phone and calling people. I was terrified,” Heffernan says. “When I called the first gentleman to talk about his brother, I didn’t know what to expect, but people just opened their doors, opened their hearts, if I can use that cliché, and treated me with complete kindness and trust.

Actor Stephen Lush (with actress Wendi Smallwood and director Michael Worthman in the background) rehearses a scene from “Rig— Voices from the Ocean Ranger Disaster.”
Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

Only two of the 40-odd people Heffernan contacted turned him down. The rest were candid about the event that changed their lives, and took away their sons, husbands and brothers, including Ron’s sister, Elaine.

“I knew that if she wasn’t going to be involved, I wasn’t going to be able to do the  project,” Heffernan says. “I didn’t want to call her because I knew it was still a very difficult topic for her. I wrote her a letter and I hadn’t heard from her for a long time, but she finally contacted me.”

Wearing a new pair of leather shoes, Heffernan walked to Elaine’s house. On the way, it started snowing; the first snow of the season and Heffernan figured his shoes were ruined.

“One of the most poignant moments in the book is when she says she looks out the window and the first snowfall always makes her think of him,” Heffernan says. “It was powerful.”

It’s one of a few tragic events forever engraved on Newfoundlanders’ hearts: in the early hours of Feb. 15, 1982 — 35 years ago this Wednesday — while undertaking exploratory drilling 170 nautical miles east of St. John’s, the Ocean Ranger semi-submersible oil rig capsized and sank in a severe weather storm. All 84 crewmen, 56 of them Newfoundlanders, perished.

Before his book was published, Heffernan submitted a chapter to The Newfoundland Quarterly. Editor Joan Sullivan, also a playwright, published it. Once she read the full book, she saw its theatrical value immediately.

“I just could see that it could be integrated into a play,” Sullivan explains. “It’s all happening in different voices, and I chose some of them and cut it so it’s chronological.”

Sullivan’s play, “Rig— Voices from the Ocean Ranger Disaster,” has been presented in different forms four times before, selling out its first run at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre within a matter of days. After a reading at MUN, Sullivan was approached by Robert Greenwood, the university’s executive director of public engagement, who told her he had missed being aboard the Ocean Ranger by one day. Heffernan then interviewed Greenwood, and Sullivan wrote him into the script.

The play will be presented by The Rooms this week to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Ocean Ranger disaster. Directed by Michael Worthman, the play stars Aiden Flynn, Wendi Smallwood, Steve Oates, Stephen Lush and Marquita Walsh, as well as Janet Edmonds, playing the role of Elaine for the third time.

Author Mike Heffernan and playwright Joan Sullivan attend a rehearsal of “Rig— Voices from the Ocean Ranger Disaster” late last week. The play is based on Heffernan’s book, for which he interviewed 37 people connected to the tragedy.
Tara Bradbury/The Telegram

“She’s an intelligent woman, a strong woman, independent,” Edmond says of Elaine’s voice in the play. “A single mom with three young kids and she was very, very, very close with her brother. They had an exceptionally close sibling relationship and were best friends. And she got him the job. She literally got him the job, so that guilt aspect is there. I think by the time she tells that story, she says, ‘I carried that guilt for a long time,’ so she has gotten through it somehow.”

Edmonds acknowledged there’s a line to walk when it comes to presenting the tragic tale in the voices of those who lived through it as theatre, and puts the power of the play down to the interviewees’ own words.

“You can’t be the person. The best you can do is tell their story,” she says. “Even now, my third time doing it, I’m still going back and trying to look at the lines fresh again. The word choices tell you a lot. The things that they chose to say and the way they chose to say them are important.”

Sullivan points out the show isn’t meant to be raw and emotional, though there are certainly elements of that. It’s a story, she says, of an event that has shaped people’s lives through their own words, decades later. She has chosen to include the aftermath of the disaster, saying man of the details shocked her: a child, for instance, learned his father had perished from the TV news.

Some of the people portrayed in the play have come to see it; others haven’t and perhaps won’t. Feedback from them has been good, Sullivan says, adding her main goal is to make them feel respected and heard.

Heffernan is pleased with Sullivan’s stage treatment of his book, saying he’s happy it’s keeping the story alive. The details of the tragedy are still relevant, he says.

“At the time that I did this, oil was well over $100 a barrel and now its bottomed out. There is no idea by industry experts when it’s going to rebound,” he says. “The petroleum industry and industry in general are very reactive to safety, not proactive. Whether it’s an oil rig or a hydroelectric dam or a pipeline or whatever, stories like this are universal.”

“(The oil industry is) an uncaring industry, using people as much as it can to make as much money as it can, and that’s not going to stop,” Sullivan adds. “Those hard-fought union rules, environmental regulations, safety protocols — people died for all of that. So yes, very relevant and a lesson hard learned. Very hard learned.”

“Rig — Voices from the Ocean Ranger Disaster” will run at The Rooms at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday. Tickets are $30 (with a 10 per cent discount for Rooms members). For more information, visit www.therooms.ca.

 

tbradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury