Two Newfoundlanders knew it would be their final voyage on the tugboat, because they were delivering it to a buyer in Nova Scotia. When they encountered heavy weather and their 38-foot vessel began flooding rapidly, they feared it would be their last voyage of any kind.
“Mayday mayday mayday, this is Check-Mate III … Taking on water and sinking," said their radio distress call Jan. 31, 2008. “Trying to get survival suits on now."
Mariners Lawrence Parsons, 69, and Christopher Oram, 32, did indeed perish that night in the icy waters off Newfoundland’s east coast. In October, a Canadian military report stated that hesitation by a Department of National Defence helicopter did not contribute to the deaths.
The internal investigation instead concluded that the victims’ immersion suits failed before any rescue was possible. Still, the report offered recommendations to improve communications, staffing, equipment and training.
Families of the deceased complained that the helicopter should have plucked the two men from the 33° water before the arrival of Coast Guard vessel George R. Pearkes. The helicopter crew had believed the men were still alive and judged that rescue from a boat was safer.
The mayday call was received at 2143 by a Coast Guard unit at St. John’s. Pearkes was about 21 nautical miles from Check-Mate III, eight miles from Baccalieu Island. The Cormorant helicopter took off from Gander, 81 miles away.
The helicopter arrived first on the scene, at 2317, 94 minutes after the mayday call. The air crew thought they saw the two mariners moving in the water, indicating that they were alive. Pearkes was already approaching. At 2322, a radio conversation with Pearkes led the chopper crew to believe that a fast rescue craft (FRC) would be launched within one or two minutes.
By 2329, however, the helicopter crew noticed no rescue boat. Pearkes reported that it would be launched in five or 10 minutes. At 2335, the Cormorant crew offered to send a search-and-rescue (SAR) tech down to check on the victims.
“At this point, the crew (on the helicopter) was very concerned and decided that while the FRC is far superior to the helicopter for horizontal recovery of hypothermic patients, the time being lost was potentially a higher threat to the well being of the PIW," or people in the water. “The aircraft commander made the decision to commence a water hoist," the report stated.
“Just as the SAR tech was moving to the rescue door, the FRC was launched from the Pearkes and the hoist was discontinued," it said.
At 2339, the small boat reached the mariners. It was very difficult to recover them, because of the sea state, tangled buddy line and waterlogged immersion suits. By 2356, both victims were in the rescue boat. Pearkes received them seven minutes later. The report withheld the victims’ conditions, including whether they were alive or dead. It was clear, however, that their survival suits had not protected the men.
“The casualties were both dressed in immersion suits that appeared to be properly donned, but in poor condition," the report said. “When the casualties were stripped of their suits in order for revival efforts to take place, the rescue specialists discovered that the suits were completely inundated with water."
The captain of Pearkes, an expert in marine emergency training, reported that “the suits must either have suffered a spectacular failure, or the suits were not properly fitted prior to the casualties abandoning the vessel."
In response to the report, Major J.P. Van Oosten, head of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre at Halifax, called the failed survival suits “the most troubling aspect of this case."
Authorities may never know exactly what went wrong with the survival suits. John Cottreau, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, confirmed that TSB investigators inspected the suits. However, rescuers had cut the suits off the victims, so it was difficult to determine exactly what condition the suits were in before that.
Van Oosten defended the judgment of the helicopter crew.
“The aircraft commander’s decision to wait for what he understood to be a short time and allow the FRC crew to recover the two men using the small boat was, in my opinion, correct," he said. “The decision likely offered the best chances of survival for the two men in the water."
Communication problems complicated the initial response, the report said. B.F. Stone, regional rescue superintendent for the Coast Guard, noted that Check-Mate III carried no EPIRB. There were garbled radio transmissions, and some conversations involving Pearkes, helicopter and coordinators were too brief.
The report recommended that:
• Marine Communications and Traffic Services use a radio channel noise reduction software toolkit.
• Someone other than the SAR coordinator field news-media inquiries.
• The St. John’s coordination center be staffed with two SAR coordinators instead of one.
• Maritime and helicopter responders conduct more exercises involving the recovery of persons in the water.
• SAR units examine whether they have the most technologically advanced rescue baskets and rough-water rescue equipment.
• Coast Guard ships carry two automated external defibrillators instead of one.