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The 'sad coincidence' that may have doomed missing Ontario sailor Reginald Fisher

An Ontario woman thinks she may have seen the flares fired by Reginald Fisher the night he vanished on Lake Erie, but when she reported it to the Canadian Coast Guard, it was dismissed because an official thought what she saw was another rescue operation taking place simultaneously, farther out on Lake Erie.

2 separate distress calls on same night on Lake Erie 'extremely rare,' constable says

Missing sailor Reginald Fisher in happier times, visiting the Sarnia Navy Club, as he often did to dance on weekends. (John Mara/Sarnia Navy Club)

An Ontario woman says she may have seen the distress flares fired by a sailor the night he vanished on Lake Erie. But when she reported the incident to the Canadian Coast Guard, she says she wasn't taken seriously. 

Reginald Fisher, of Dutton, Ont., went missing last Thursday after he didn't return from his sailing trip. Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) recovered his abandoned sailboat the next day but saw no sign of the 77-year-old. 

On Tuesday, Const. Troy Carlson of the OPP Marine Unit said the effort to rescue the missing sailor had become a recovery effort as police continued to search for him

Rosemary Mitton, who owns a cottage on the north shore of Lake Erie not far from Rondeau Provincial Park, said she may have seen Fisher's flares that night.

"It was a clear night. The lake was flat. It was really easy to tell that was a flare," she said. "Our son Charlie's cottage is just a few doors down from our own.…

"We both saw another one. I had him on the phone."

Rosemary Mitton said she thinks she saw the distress flares of the missing 77-year-old sailor who vanished on Lake Erie after heading out from Port Glasgow, Ont., on Sept. 17. (Submitted by Rosemary Mitton)

'A sad coincidence'

The 66-year-old woman quickly went back into the house to find the 1-800 number for the Canadian Coast Guard to report what she saw.

"I called, and I got a man with a French-Canadian accent," Mitton said. "I told him, 'Lake Erie, north shore of Lake Erie and just east of Rondeau and just beyond the point at Clearville,' because we don't see beyond the point at Clearville because of the curvature of the Earth. It was well within this side of the horizon.

"He asked me what colour the flare was, and I told him it was the colour of fire, and he said, 'That's ours.'"

At the same time as Mitton called in her sighting, there was a coast guard rescue operation happening somewhere near Port Burwell, Ont. 

The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., said it received word that a boat was in distress and taking on water near Port Burwell. A CC-130 Hercules aircraft was sent to provide illumination support by dropping parachute flares in the area Thursday night. A coast guard vessel then escorted the limping ship back to Port Burwell, where all occupants managed to return to shore safely. 

2 sets of flares on same night?

But Fisher never did.

"I think what it was was a sad coincidence that we had a person in distress sending up flares and they had somebody in Port Burwell that they were dropping to," Mitton said. 

"Two sets of flares on the same night on a calm lake. It would be highly unusual." 

Mitton believes she may have seen his distress signal rising above the dark water of Lake Erie, somewhere west of the point at Clearville, Ont., an eight-minute drive from Port Glasgow, where OPP said Fisher set off on his doomed voyage earlier that day. 

A map showing the relevant locations involved in the incident. Including Rondeau Park, close to where Mitton lives, Clearville, where she thought she saw the flare, Port Glasgow, where Fisher left in his sailboat the night he disappeared and Port Burwell, where the RCAF was dropping flares in another rescue. (Scott Galley/CBC News)

That night, as she spoke to a coast guard official on the phone, Mitton said she kept insisting she knew what she saw, but, for whatever reason, he didn't seem to take it seriously. 

"I told him we don't see Port Burwell, and the flares weren't being dropped. They were going up," she said. "He assured me they were there. He just kept saying, 'That's ours.'"

Flares from multiple locations

"He was a very, very friendly man, and we had a very, very friendly conversation. I felt a little bit stupid. I know where I live, and we never see Port Burwell. It's 80 miles away," Mitton said.

"I don't understand why the dispatcher, the person who was in the office that night, wouldn't have simply looked at a chart."

The OPP told CBC News on Tuesday that Mitton wasn't the only person who reported flares that night.

Fisher was last seen leaving Port Glasgow, Ont., in a 14-foot sailboat last Thursday afternoon. (Submitted by Elgin County OPP)

"We did have multiple reports of flares from multiple locations up and down the northern shore of Lake Erie," said Carlson, noting that if the flares were from Fisher, he would have fired them off at almost the same time the coast guard and the military were conducting the other rescue near Port Burwell. 

Carlson said the likelihood of two separate distress calls on the same calm, clear night on Lake Erie is "extremely rare." 

Maj. Trevor Reid, a spokesperson for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre, said the military received those same reports that night. 

"During [the Port Burwell rescue], Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre Trenton received reports advising them of flares being seen in the sky. Based on the time of reporting and the description of the flares, it was determined that these flares were those being dropped by the RCAF Hercules," Reid wrote in an email. 

Mitton said the coast guard official who answered the phone eventually convinced her she was worrying about nothing. She went to bed that night reassuring herself that whoever was out there would probably be fine until morning because the water was so calm and the skies were clear. 

"Lake Erie is well named. It can change in a minute," she said. "The wind really picked up in the night. The lake got wild. I didn't sleep. I was just pacing, and there were no more flares.

"By morning, the Hercules [aircraft] started going over, and we knew we lost somebody. I really felt sick. I mean physically ill."

The incident raises a number of questions, such as what really happened to Fisher and why didn't the military look more thoroughly into what Mitton told them. When she thinks about it, the idea of a call for help going unanswered leaves her cold. 

A picture of the Hercules aircraft taken by Rosemary Mitton the day after she says she reported flares coming up from Lake Erie that may have belonged to the missing Reginald Fisher. (Rosemary Mitton/Facebook )

Sailor 'very sweet'

"It sends shivers up and down our spines because it could have been us. Anybody, one of our friends' kids — whatever. We have lost neighbours' kids on the lake, and we have incredible respect for the water because of that."

Fisher was described as adventurous, athletic and an avid dancer who was popular with the ladies.

Those who knew the man said he was a regular at the Sarnia Navy Club before the pandemic and was often there on weekends playing pool and wearing his signature cowboy hat. 

"He was very sweet, caring," said club president Cindy Vandenberghe. "Danced with every lady he could.… We called him Spider Legs because you never knew where his legs would go. It's very upsetting. He will be missed." 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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