25 years later, Ocean Ranger tragedy deeply felt

Twenty-five years after a vicious winter storm ripped across the Atlantic Ocean and helped sink the world's largest and most advanced oil rig, memories of the Ocean Ranger tragedy are still painful and fresh.

Sinking launched changes in offshore oil safety, training

Twenty-five years after a vicious winter storm ripped across the Atlantic Ocean and helped sink the world's largest and most advanced oil rig, memories of the Ocean Ranger tragedy are still painful and fresh.

The Ocean Ranger was considered the mightiest oil rig in the world when it sank early on Feb. 15, 1982. ((CBC) )
All 84 crew members died when the Ocean Ranger toppled and then sank on the Grand Banksin the early hours of Feb. 15, 1982.

"It's still— the way it happened, there's no closure. It doesn't feel like there's any," said Connie Foley, who was 19 when her father Ron and his colleagues died at sea.

Marine tragedies are far from unknown in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the fishery continues to be one of the riskiest industries inCanada.

But the Ocean Ranger disaster was different. It came less than three years after oil was discovered at the Hibernia oil field, and when enthusiasm about a new, oil-based economy was rampant.

Subsequent investigations, which included a royal commission, found that a cascade of problems— including mechanical and design problems, human error and poor training— helped bring down the Ranger.

Control room technicians, for instance, had only had a few weeks of training, and were unable to fix ballast problems that quickly set in when 20-metre waves crashed through a control-room portal and interfered with a panel.

Inadequate preparation, equipment

Investigations also showed crews had inadequate preparation and equipment for evacuation.

Priscilla Boutcher became an outspoken advocate for workplace safety after her son died in the Ocean Ranger sinking. ((CBC) )
"If things had been proper and safe in the workplace, he would be here today," said Priscilla Boutcher, a former mayor of Corner Brook, whose son David, 24, died in the sinking.

"I mean, it was neglect."

The tragedy prompted Boutcher to become an outspoken advocate for workplace safety, and she continues to talk to students about the issue.

The Ocean Ranger sinking still resonates to this day, even with those who had not even been born, she said.

"You could drop a pin in that room when you talk about it, because a lot of these young people don't realize [when] you're young, you're carefree, how important it is to be educated on safety," Boutcher told CBC News.

Other families still feel the pain of the sinking, as well as the trauma that followed. For some, compensation was little help.

Foley, whose parents were divorced, said the support her father was providing for five children between 10 and 19 stopped with his death. A trust fund of $65,000 was created for the children.

"She had no rights to anything, even though Dad paid for child support and kept us going in clothes and different things that we wanted," Foley told CBC News.

"That was totally cut off. There was nothing after that."

Lawyers at the time said the $20-million package negotiated for the families was fair for the time.

Sadness still lingers

While sore feelings about the compensation still linger— Boutcher says families felt intense pressure to settle early— they are overshadowed by the lingering sadness about the sinking itself.

Every year, Gonzaga High School in St. John's, which lost several alumni in the sinking, holds an ecumenical service at a nearby church.

A ceremony will also be held this year at an Ocean Ranger monument which sits in the shadow of Confederation Building, the seat of the provincial government.

Government regulations were greatly tightened in the aftermath of the sinking. Indeed, Newfoundland and Labrador has emerged as a world leader in training for disasters at sea.

"Those people that were ultimately responsible for maintaining stability [on the Ranger] were scared to death," said Scott MacKinnon, who holds a research chair at Memorial University on workplace safety.

"I imagine they didn't recognize some critical things that now even the most basic training would identify."

Even with huge advances in technology and evacuation training, though, the chances of survival at sea are still considered slim. Moreover, real-world use of evacuation systems is an unknown area.

"Do they— can they— work? We won't know until a crew is forced to use them, because the industry will not launch lifeboats at sea for practice, because it's too dangerous. Think about that," said Scott Strong, who worked formore than twoyears on the royal commission.

Strong said the commission's recommendations— most of which have been implemented— never caught the profound human dimensions of the sinking, and how the tragedy was deeply felt even by those who had no personal connections to the crew.

"We have 25 years of learning, and we have that memory."