Newfoundland deaths prompt questions about survival suits

Two mariners died when their small tugboat sank off the Newfoundland coast, and the Canadian military is investigating whether a helicopter crew mishandled the rescue effort.

The emergency began when Check-Mate III, a 38-foot tug and utility boat, began taking on water and sank eight miles north of Baccalieu Island, said Susan Keough, a spokeswoman for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which oversees the Coast Guard. That location is off Newfoundland’s east coast.

Lawrence Parsons, 69, and Christopher Oram, 32, entered the sea wearing survival suits but were dead when a Coast Guard vessel pulled them from the frigid water. Joint Rescue Coordination Centre officials in Halifax said their suits were full of water.

A Cormorant helicopter arrived first after receiving the men’s mayday call at 2145 on Jan. 21. The Gander-based helicopter arrived 95 minutes after the distress call. Maj. John Van Oosten, officer in charge of Rescue Coordination for Atlantic Canada, said the helicopter crew saw the two mariners moving in the water.

Thinking the men were alive, the helicopter crew decided to forgo a dangerous air rescue. Instead, they waited for the nearby Coast Guard vessel George R. Pearkes to pick up the men.

The helicopter hovered for 14 minutes while the fast-rescue craft Pearkes was on its way. Van Oosten said the helicopter search team would have reacted differently if they had known that the icy water had penetrated the men’s survival suits and that they were dying of hypothermia.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said it has decided not to investigate the cause of the sinking itself, because there were no surviving witnesses and no salvaged vessel.

The rescue attempt, however, is the subject of intense government scrutiny. Top officials in the Department of National Defence have ordered a wide-ranging probe of the failed mission.

“The purpose of that report is to identify any lessons learned that could be gleaned essentially from an incident like that to enhance search and rescue operations in the future,” said Maj. James Simiana, a spokesman with the military Joint Task Force Atlantic in Halifax.

The Transportation Safety Board, Transport Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Coast Guard have announced separate investigations of the rescue effort.

Parsons and Oram were transporting Check-Mate III from Wesleyville, Newfoundland, to Halifax to deliver the vessel to new owners when the accident happened. The boat sank in the Atlantic Ocean near the entrance to Trinity Bay. The site is about 60 miles north of the provincial capital, St. John’s.

Southwesterly winds were between 26 knots and 33 knots, Keough said. Seas were at least 6.5 feet. The boat sank in 1,500 feet of water. Check-Mate III is a Carvel/Flush-type steel boat that resembles a pilot boat. It was built in 1987 by Mike Verbrugge in Port Burwell, Ontario.

The registered owner of Check-Mate III was Bruce Davis of Wesleyville, Newfoundland, according to Transport Canada’s vessel registration directory. The vessel’s port of registry is St. John’s, but it had been moored in Wesleyville for years. It was certified seaworthy in November 2007.

No one has announced any plans to salvage the 22-gross-ton vessel, Keough said.

Parsons was the mayor of Lumsden, a former cod-fishing village, population 533. Oram, a father or two, lived in nearby Badger’s Quay. Both men were experienced mariners.

Terry Williams, an attorney in St. John’s, told Professional Mariner that the families of both deceased mariners have hired him to help them get information about the decisions made on the Cormorant helicopter.

Van Oosten said the Coast Guard boat crew had difficulty lifting the two men out of the sea, because their survival suits were so full of water. In the end, hoisting them up by helicopter could have taken just as long and would have been more dangerous, he said.

Another lawyer, Darren Williams of Victoria, British Columbia, said the Check-Mate III fatalities are likely to fuel an ongoing debate in Canada over the design of mariners’ survival suits.

Williams, who is no relation to Terry Williams, said virtually all approved marine survival suits are “face-sealing” and tend to allow too much water ingress. They must pass tests that are conducted in swimming pools instead of in real-world sea conditions.

“They’re getting water inside their face seals,” said the British Columbia lawyer, who is an ex-fisherman. “What we’re trying to do is change to a style that is more like a helicopter-abandonment suit, which are survival suits that seal around the neck like a dry suit.”
The authorities have not disclosed the make and model of the survival suits worn by the Check-Mate III mariners.
By Professional Mariner Staff