Thursday, February 15, 2007

I remember the Ocean Ranger

I have a very clear recollection of the morning I woke up to the news that the Ocean Ranger had vanished. At the time we didn't know how it happened. But the impact that something that big could go from being there to suddenly just not being there was a sobering one.

At that time the industry was new and the province was filled with speculation about how bright our future was going to be. Peckford was in his full-blown glory outlining how gold that would line our streets just as soon as he was finished his wars with the feds. The newspapers carried stories and photos of drill rigs off our coast with exotic names like Sedco 706 and Zapata Ugland. And the Ocean Ranger.

Then one night one of them capsized and disappeared with 84 on board.

Among these 84 people was a guy I knew well.

He was in the same class as me from K to grade 9 and lived not far from my house; we grew up together. I remember him as a tall and gangly kid with blonde hair and a build that would charitably be called twig-like. You could always find him by his wide grin that exposed a gap between two of his front teeth.

He was a class clown, marginal in school and annoyed the teachers by acting a little tough and getting in trouble; he always looked and seemed older and smoked before the rest of us did.

In a small class of 25 students or so at St. Pius X, I saw him every school day for 10 years; he was one of us. He came to Gonzaga and I lost track of him as we parted into separate academic programs.

We heard he had gotten a job in the nascent oil industry offshore. He didn't have much training, no experience at all and he was pretty young. That didn't matter then; he had a cool job making big bucks while the rest of us were still slogging through school or low-paying entry level jobs.

We envied him.

It turned out he was on the rig that night and his body was one of the 22 recovered. I heard he was found curled up in the bow of a lifeboat with just jeans and a t-shirt.

He was 20. Never married. Never had children.

We found out after he received no emergency training to speak of, the lifesaving equipment ranged from inadequate to pathetic and no survival suits were available.

It's easy to think about the people who work in this business as faceless "those people" far away in corporate offices getting millions a year in bonuses. The truth is that the people who choose to work in this business are our friends, classmates, wives, sons, fathers, daughters, neighbors. Some work offshore on the rigs but many provide the services and goods that let them carry on with their jobs.

Not all the positions are dangerous but they are all important.

We are the people who work in this industry. It is just as much a part of Newfoundland and Labrador as fishing or farming. It has become an integral part of how we live, who we are and we talk about it all the time. Now it's part of our culture with it's own library of books, plays, paintings, photos and songs.

One of the great songs is Atlantic Blue by Ron Hynes and it's about the disaster of the Ocean Ranger (you can hear a clip here).

The lives of these 84 people were the price we paid for having an oil industry in this province and those are the people we have to thank for the hundreds of millions of dollars which flow into the provincial treasury each year and the overall economic benefits to this province.

And that includes the life of my friend who perished on cold night in a small boat in the stormy North Atlantic.

Rest in peace.

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