No movement on Flight 491 memorial

Families continue to wait four years after offshore helicopter tragedy

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on March 10, 2013
A Cougar helicopter. — Telegram file photo

Harold Mullowney sat with his sister-in-law Roxanne when the provincial Department of Municipal Affairs sent over representatives to talk about his brother, Derrick Mullowney, and the Cougar Flight 491 memorial.

"Two or three people came out to her house and sat with her and went through a spiel of questions that they had and what people wanted to see," Mullowney told The Telegram.

It was one of many "kitchen roundtables" to take place in the past year, as the provincial government completed initial consultations with family members representing all of the 17 people killed in the helicopter crash of March 12, 2009.

"We've got to take this information and bring it to the next level," Mullowney said, suggesting a site be chosen and expressing disappointment there has been no further movement on the memorial to date.

"This is taking so long that it's now getting frustrating," said Danny Breen, brother of Peter Breen, who also died in the crash.

Both Mullowney and Breen said the development of the memorial is not a complicated process and their understanding is that there is agreement among family members on the basic attributes it should have.

"It's really a reminder of the offshore and the dangers of the offshore and how important safety is to the people," Breen said.

The pair said the memorial needs to be visible and accessible.

Breen said he also hopes the site will be a positive place where children can spend time.

In the 2010 throne speech, the provincial government promised to "identify an appropriate action to memorialize" those who died in the crash: Thomas Anwyll, Peter Breen, Gary Corbett, Matthew Davis, Wade Drake, Wade Duggan, Corey Eddy, Keith Escott, Colin Henley, Timothy Lanouette, Kenneth MacRae, Allison Maher, Greg Morris, Derrick Mullowney, Burch Nash, John Pelley and Paul Pike.

There was one survivor, Robert Decker.

In the 2011 provincial budget, $400,000 was earmarked for the Cougar Flight 491 monument.

By Sept. 30 of that year, The Telegram reported that consultations with family members of the deceased had yet to begin.

The work has since advanced, according to Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O'Brien.

"We have a consultation report and I thank each one of the participants, and invited them to become part of the memorial planning committee. And we'll move to that stage now and they will help us design and eventually construct and launch the memorial," he said.

No locations or design details have been set yet, he said.

"I'm quite sure that over the next few months or so we'll come to a final design and construction site."

Funding for the memorial is carried forward as a line item in the budget from year to year.

Anniversary looming

Meanwhile, families and friends of those lost are preparing to mark the fourth anniversary of the crash and the emotional whirlwind that followed.

"This never occurred over a two- to three-day period. This happened over, like, a two-week period," Breen said.

There was the original hope of a rescue, dashed by the news the search was actually a recovery mission.

"I think that moment at the Comfort Inn-," Breen says.

"-Yeah," Mullowney nods and jumps in. He's looking at the table in The Telegram boardroom, but clearly in his mind he's seeing that hotel room.

"I can't even remember who it was. All the families were in the main room there and he said they got the lifeboats and they were all empty," Breen continued.

"You could feel the air being sucked out of the room."

The frantic phone calls made throughout the province that day, as people tried to determine if a loved one had been aboard the flight, were all too familiar to Mullowney, who had made similar calls with the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in February 1982, which killed 84.

"(Derrick) was out there the night the Ocean Ranger went down and we, as a family, pretty much thought he was dead that night because we didn't know. Believe it or not, we didn't know what rig he was on," Mullowney said.

Mullowney and Breen said the memorial for victims of Cougar Flight 491 should be about those phone calls - about the safety of the people who work on the North Atlantic.

"When I think of Pete, I think of his friendships out there, and how much he treasured those friendships and enjoyed being there," Breen said.

Mullowney said he has friends and neighbours in Bay Bulls regularly making the trip offshore for work.

Mullowney said the concern is that as time goes by, people will forget recommended changes in the name of safety - even if they remember the accident and the dead.

Seeking and fulfilling recommendations for change in the wake of the crash has been, in large part, a responsibility of the offshore regulator.

"The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) has been very busy implementing the recommendations that came out of the (Offshore Helicopter Safety) Inquiry," said Chief Safety Officer Dan Chicoyne.

"Most notably, there have been major changes to helicopter procedures and substantial improvements to the helicopters themselves, as well as SAR response capability, personal protective equipment, worker involvement and transparency."

Updates have been posted on the CNLOPB website.

But in terms of the followup by government and regulators, "there's more to be done yet," Mullowney said.

Breen agrees.

"If you go back to the Wells Inquiry, there was one significant, overriding recommendation in the Wells Inquiry, and that was the creation of a separate offshore safety body or distinct regime, and the federal government hasn't even addressed it," he said.

"And, quite frankly, the provincial government hasn't even pushed them."

Both men also pointed to the need to continue to press for things like rapid, consistent search and rescue coverage.

"I don't believe the federal government truly appreciates how important this is to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians," Breen said.

A memorial service for the victims of Cougar Flight 491 will be held Tuesday, March 12 at 7 p.m. at the Salvation Army Citadel, Adams Avenue, St. John's.