‘Darrell loved wearing that orange beret’
This would have been a regular gathering for a group of friends out for a chat and a coffee at Tim Hortons in Kelligrews.
Sitting around the table are childhood friends — Blair Tilley, Mike Walsh, Michelle (Bursey) Walsh and Keith Cronin — sharing stories about the one person who is missing — Keith’s brother, Darrell.
Darrell, a master corporal and search-and-rescue technician with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron out of Greenwood, N.S., was in a helicopter that crashed, killing all six on board, on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula while returning from a mission. He was 32.
The friends gathered late last week to share memories and stories of Darrell in advance of a ceremony on Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Admiral’s Academy in Kelligrews that will dedicate the learning centre in his honour. This will take place at 10:45 a.m., following the school’s Remembrance Day ceremony.
“When I got the call from Father Pat Kennedy, I thought something had happened to Mom or Dad. Darrell was the last of my worries,” said Keith Cronin, Darrell’s brother.
“Losing him took its toll on Mom and Dad (Helen and Frank Cronin). You could see it. They would go to the grave and when I asked what they were doing, they said we are just going to have a smoke with Darrell.”
This group was close-knit, did everything together — admittedly good and bad — and the future they all planned was right on track.
“You have to remember, C.B.S. was small back then, not like it is now. We all went to high school together, played sports together,’’ Keith said.
“We were all high school friends back in the day at Holy Spirit. Everyone knew everyone. That is just how it was,” he added, looking around the table.
Honouring Darrell is easy, according to the group, so when Wayne Miller started to put together a memorial honouring his life of service, it was easy to get on board.
They are naming a library, a learning centre for the community, after him so the youth will be able to talk about him and what he stood for, now and into the future.
The ceremony will be special for the family, as command from Greenwood and Gander will attend, an honour guard is being presented by search-and-rescue, and a number of other dignitaries and family will be on hand.
The honour guard will be delivered to the school in a SAR helicopter.
If Darrell put his mind to something, there wasn’t much he couldn’t accomplish, and to say he almost lived a charmed life in the early years may be an understatement.
And you could bet there wasn’t anyone who was going to stop him, either.
“You go down to Holy Spirit. The only hockey banner that school has ever won is because of Darrell,’’ Walsh said.
“We were down a goal in regionals and never would have won it without Darrell scoring the tying goal and the game-winner late in the match."
A few years before the hockey heroics, he and his cousin Tilley were hanging around and goofing off on a summer day when they got wind that someone had gone missing while swimming at the pool on Legion Road.
This pool was actually located on the river, but nonetheless, Darrell and Blair decided to jump on their bikes and head down to see what they could do.
“He had to be tired, but he said he was going to find him, and he did. That is who Darrell was.
“If you knew Darrell even a little, when we got there, he decided he was going to find the boy, so in he went. I don’t know how many times he dove, but eventually he came up after locating the body,” Tilley recalled.
That led to him enlisting in the military after high school. Eventually, he made his way to search-and-rescue, where he would go out in weather not fit for anyone else, at any hour of the day, to rescue people in distress.
He was always the first one in the water loading a fisherman into a basket to get him aboard the chopper. He was down there, taking 10-foot swells on a regular basis in order to make sure someone’s loved one made it home.
“We never knew where Darrell was going to be. He could be 200 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia somewhere, jumping in the water. That is what he did,’’ Walsh said.
“Outside of his kids and his wife, Darrell loved wearing that orange beret,’’ Tilley added.
Now, 20 years later, the group can’t believe it has been that long since they lost their friend, someone who was bigger than life, and the stories back that up.
"You want to see how your tax dollars worked back then, you might think I’m kidding, but when Darrell was anywhere near us, he would jump in (parachute) and the joke was when he called, ‘I just came into St. John’s for dinner," Keith said.
“When he was home, he was home. All he wanted was his friends, family and a few beers."
Keith Cronin, brother of the late Darrell Cronin
Keith explained that it didn’t matter who was having a party, Grade 10 or Grade 12, everyone in the community was there, that is how close-knit the community was.
And you could bet, Darrell was the centre of attention.
Michelle Walsh recalled one time the group was playing softball on St. Edward’s Field and, as usual, Darrell was leading the chirping among them.
“I remember him saying he was going to hit a home run off me while I was pitching. I told him to be quiet and get in the box and hit,’’ she said.
“Next thing I know, he hit a line drive back at me, hit me in the face breaking my glasses and I was lying on the ground bleeding. I could hear Darrell making fun of me and I swore at him a couple of times and told him to get away from me … in several profane ways.’’
Little did she know who was standing over her, and when she opened her eyes, there was Father Pat Kennedy standing there, and she was mortified.
And Darrell was laughing.
In another incident, he and Tilley had secured a six-pack of beer and likely a few smokes and headed down to a gravel pit at the end of Legion Road.
“We had a few beers and likely a few smokes when we saw lights coming. We hid behind some big rocks that were there and we could see them looking, but they didn’t find us,’’ Tilley said.
“There were a lot of close calls like that, but I must say, the police never brought us home.”
After Darrell’s death, his mother Helen put a shrine up at the house in honour of her son. When they weren’t dropping down to the grave for a visit, people would come to the house to support them … all but one.
Tilley said every time he came home, he would always say he had to drop up and see Helen and Frank, but he couldn’t, still haunted by the loss. He had to turn and look out the window so as to not let anyone see the emotion in his eyes.
“After I moved back in 2003, I wanted to go, but I couldn’t. It took me about 10 years to finally get up enough courage to go,’’ he said. “When I saw the shrine, it was emotional.”
Service must run in the family, as Tilley joined the Canadian Forces and Mike, Michelle and Keith all did their best to help others in the community.
His son Christopher, 28, followed in his dad’s footsteps and joined the military, serving five years before getting out. Like his father, Chris is passionate about his career and has always been intrigued by medicine. In addition, he is athletic with a passion for hockey ... just like his father.
He is now in Prince Edward Island pursuing his Advanced Care Paramedicine Course. He essentially already is a paramedic, having received his primary care paramedicine course prior to joining the military.
Tanisha, 23, lives in Edmonton and works as an on-ice Edmonton Oilers Crush girl on game nights in addition to a host of other jobs and academic pursuits.
She works as a fulltime teachers aide for the Sturgeon County school board in Alberta, coaches the boys volleyball team, works part time as a server at a popular restaurant in downtown Edmonton in addition to her on-ice duties with Oilers Entertainment group.
All of these activities are aimed at helping with her plans to return to school for the winter session where she will pursue a teaching degree majoring in French and taking a second degree in physical education.
In honour of Darrell's loss, the Gander wing of SAR set up a first aid competition in support of SAR and named it the Darrell Cronin Memorial.
Tusker 27 crew
The following is a list of the Labrador crew from 14 Wing Greenwood who perished in a helicopter crash in near Marsoui, Que., on Oct. 2, 1998.
The CH-113 helicopter was en route from CFB Greenwood when it went down on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula while returning from a SAR mission.
Members of the Tusker 27 crew were:
• MCpl Darrell Cronin of St. John’s. He was a search-and-rescue technician with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron out of Greenwood, N.S. He was married (Melinda) and had two children (Christopher and Tanisha) at the time of his death.
• Capt. Peter Musselman, 33, of Edmonton was a pilot with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. Musselman was married and had one child.
• Capt. Darrin Vandenbilche, 33, of Invermere, B.C., was also was a pilot with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. He was engaged to be married.
• MCpl David Gaetz, 37, of Halifax was a flight engineer with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. Gaetz was married and had three children.
• MCpl Glen Sinclair, 36, of Rastatt, Germany, was training as a flight engineer with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. Sinclair was married and had three children.
• Sgt. Jean Roy, 34, of Montréal, Qué., was a search-and-rescue technician with 413 Search and Rescue Squadron. Roy was married and had three children.