Nfld. & Labrador

New book honours victims of Cougar crash 10 years after tragedy

It’s been nearly 10 years since a Cougar helicopter crashed en route to the Grand Banks and claimed 17 of the 18 lives onboard.

Rod Etheridge's book shares stories of the men and woman lost that day

Rod Etheridge was drawn to the Cougar story after realizing he still didn't know much about the people who died that day. (Boulder Publications/Malone Mullin)

It's been nearly 10 years since a Cougar Helicopters flight crashed en route to the Grand Banks and claimed 17 of the 18 lives onboard, and now a new book is examining those lives that were lost.

Rod Etheridge's 18 Souls: The Loss and Legacy of Cougar Flight 491 traces the stories of people who died in the crash, and the families, friends, and loved ones left behind.

Twelve of them are profiled in the book through extensive interviews with the people closest to the tragedy and its fallout.

"Every single one of them wanted to tell their story, because they want people to know how hard it is — how hard it is to get that phone call, how hard it is to turn around to your six-year-old and say 'Dad's not coming home,'" said Etheridge in an interview with the St. John's Morning Show.

"And they want that to be part of the legacy, in the sense they want the public to know that the offshore life is not easy." 

'Who's going to tell their stories?'

The idea came to Etheridge, a veteran reporter and producer with CBC News, after noticing a conspicuous absence of coverage in the years that followed.

"I thought, 'Wow, I don't hear much talk about the people that died that day,' other than the collective '17 [who] lost their lives,'" he said.

There was plenty of discussion about helicopter safety, or about memorial masses, but Etheridge said he was struck by the lack of intimate knowledge about the people who died.

"I just thought, 'Who's going to tell their stories if if someone doesn't put it down?'"

18 Souls: The Loss and Legacy of Cougar Flight 491 is being released on the 10th anniversary of the Cougar crash. (Boulder Publications)

After reaching out to St. John's Mayor Danny Breen — who lost his brother Peter in the crash— Etheridge started contacting the families of the victims.

"It was a happy story in the beginning, talking about their lives and how they met and the things they did," said Etheridge.  

"But then inevitably every person I talked to would say, 'I still feel that day as if it was yesterday.'"

At a book launch on Thursday, Peter Breen's daughter, Noelle Cullen, weighed in on the impact the reporting had on the families. They usually only hear about the crash, not the people involved.

Her young daughters never got to meet their Poppy, Cullen said, but now they'll be able to read all about him.

"As they get older they're going to be able to pass it down to their children," she said "So for them to be able to actually have those memories and read them in a book like that, to me, is something really special."

Emotional journey

Lives turned on a dime that day, Etheridge said. That momentous shift stuck with him throughout his research.

"It struck me that, oh my God, everyone's world changed with a phone ringing," he said.

The stories he learned ranged from the tragic —  like one man who died on his daughter's birthday — to the surreal.

 In the months before the accident, passenger Burch Nash suffered from terrible nightmares about dying in a helicopter crash.

"He would wake up in the months before it happened. He would wake up in a cold sweat really upset and screaming," said Etheridge, who interviewed Nash's wife Marilyn.

Nash, not an overly religious man, took up the habit of praying in the months before he died — to "get in good with God" so that his body would be found, Etheridge said.

A living document 

The magnitude of the tragedy sent shock waves still reverberating throughout the province even a decade later.

Only one man, Robert Decker, survived the crash of Cougar Flight 491, but he declined an interview for the book. 

Etheridge hopes the book honours the legacy of those who died.

"What stays with me is the fact that these are all people who [were] just doing their best to raise a good family and have a good salary to do that with," he said. 

"No one wants to remember how they died. They want to remember how they lived."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show