Women remember 1985 helicopter crash

Looking forward to memorial for offshore workers

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on March 14, 2014
Capt. Gary Freeman Fowlow was flying a Universal helicopter when it crashed March 13, 1985 near Argentia. Fowlow and five others died. To view his memorial web page go to facebook.com/photo.php?v=331968326929 — Photo courtesy of the Fowlows’ memorial page

One day after the fifth anniversary of the fatal Cougar Helicopters crash, the families of six men who died the same way are in their 29th year of remembering their loved ones.

Two family members of two of the men killed when a helicopter owned by Universal helicopters crashed near Argentia March 13, 1985 told The Telegram Thursday they feel the same loss.

“In the early days you couldn’t get past crash day,” said Marilyn Lythgoe, the sister of Bernie (Copper) Murphy of St. John’s.

“You were grieving and thinking about them, and it’s like we are fused together with other families by our grief. It doesn’t matter the passage of time. It stays with you,” Lythgoe said.

 Universal, which had been under contract to Petro Canada, crashed shortly after taking off from the rig Bowdrill I which was moored in Placentia Bay for maintenance.

Twenty-four years later, March 12, 2009, Cougar Flight 491 crashed while en route to the SeaRose FPSO in the White Rose oil field and Hibernia Platform in the Hibernia oilfield, killing 17 of the 18 passengers onboard.

According to commissioner Robert Wells, who headed up the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, the Universal helicopter left the Bowdrill I at 10:45 p.m. to return to St. John’s, normally a 20-minute flight. The helicopter crashed less than 1,500 metres from the rig.

Hilda Buckles, the wife of Capt. Gary Freeman Fowlow of Torbay, said it’s uncanny how the crashes were only one day in the difference.

“It’s ironic really, that crash on March 12 and Universal the next day,” she said.

“Me, I guess like everyone else, when March hits you start thinking about what happened, the events and how it all unfolded,” she said.

It was a rough time for the families, Buckles said.

“The crash happened March 13 but Gary wasn’t buried until March 23 because it took so long to find their bodies. It wasn’t an overnight thing. There’s a lot of things you remember and a lot you don’t because you’re in total shock,” she said of getting the call that night, and of the days spent waiting for word from the divers searching for the bodies.

“My husband was a very logical person. He always said if anything happens out over the water just know it’s very serious. Don’t spend a lot of time hoping. For us, myself, when we got the news, you knew. You knew that was it,” she said.

Lythgoe said it was arranged for the family to go to the site, where they gathered overlooking a body of water she described as no bigger than St. John’s harbour. She said her brother was the first one recovered.

“It’s been a bit of hell for 29 years. He introduced me to my husband. He was only 18 months older than me. To lose someone that young and having everything to live for, and poof — in a heartbeat your life is altered,” Lythgoe said.

Both women agreed for a long time it appeared as though no one, other than the families of the workers on Universal, remembered the crash.

Even Wells didn’t learn of it during the inquiry. He later issued a message offering his regrets and condolences to the families and met with them.

“Up until I received that information, I was not aware of these fatalities, and there was no evidence or reference made to them at the inquiry proceedings. Sadly, the number of C-NL offshore helicopter fatalities referred to in my report must be amended from 17 to 23,” he wrote.

Buckles said Wells’ recognition helped.

“Over the years, (we) tried to have it acknowledged, but somehow it just fell through the cracks,” she said.

“But to be honest, we were asked to do interviews by the media several times and sort of shied away from it, so that might have brought it out in the open more,” Buckles said.

When the province announced last year it would erect a monument in honour of the workers killed on both crashes, Buckles and Lythgoe said they were elated.

On Oct. 29, 2013 they gathered at Quidi Vidi Lake with other family members to see the designer’s concept for the monument, which is to be unveiled later this summer.

“I’m delighted, absolutely delighted. The fact the six names are going to be on that memorial means the world to us,” said Lythgoe.

“To be able to walk around the lake and see Copper’s name there, and the memorial itself, is absolutely beautiful. It’s something for the families to look forward to, a place to sit that’s not in a cemetery. It’s a place outdoors where we can sit and smile and remember them.”  

Buckles said it’s difficult for families when they don’t have somewhere to mourn.

“The hardest thing I used to find since the Cougar crash, so many of them have to go to the hangar and put flowers on the fence. With this  there will be somewhere for us to go. It is so important and for us. It’s the acknowledgement that this happened to our loved ones, too,” she said.




Universal helicopter crew and passengers

Captain Gary Freeman Fowlow  

First Officer Frank Kearney 

Brian Garbett Director of Logistics for Newfoundland with Petro-Canada

Art Smith of Harvey Offshore services  

Bernie Murphy of Newfoundland Telephone Co.

Jim Wilson of Cove Communications