Nfld. & Labrador

Search and rescue response time questioned

The owner of the fishing vessel that sank off the east coast of Newfoundland on Saturday is questioning the response time by search and rescue officials.

The owner of the fishing vessel that sank off the east coast of Newfoundland on Saturday is questioning the response time by search and rescue officials.

Five men were onboard the Sea Gypsy Enterprises when it started to take on water about 130 kilometres off St. John's.

They jumped into the North Atlantic, with the captain so busy trying to send out a mayday out that he didn't have time to put on a survival suit.

Three rescued men were plucked from the sea by helicopter after they jumped from the ship. The body of one crew member was also recovered, while searchers are still looking for the fifth man.

Vessel owner Laurie Sullivan, of Calvert, on Newfoundland's southern shore, believes it took too long for rescuers to respond.

"There's a lot of very unanswered questions about how many lives have to be lost before, you know, we can have a standby search and rescue helicopter in St. John's," Sullivan told CBC News.

He said coast guard officials told him search and rescue "would be on their way, but it would be a long while."

'It was too long'

The mayday call came in at roughly 11 a.m. N.L. time Saturday. Sullivan said it was after 1 p.m. before the search and rescue helicopter got to the site, and around 3 p.m. before all the rescued men were picked up.

"In my opinion," Sullivan said, "it was too long."

Maj. Denis McGuire of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax said a contracted fixed-wing aircraft, which flies over the area for visual inspections, was sent to the area to have a "quick look" after the call for help came in.

At the same time, he said, a Cormorant helicopter was sent from Gander and a Hercules aircraft left Greenwood, N.S. The area was also scouted for any nearby fishing vessels that could assist in the rescue.

McGuire couldn't say when the Cormorant helicopter, which is used to rescue to people from the water, arrived on the scene.

"I'm not sure," he told CBC News. However, he did say the first aircraft arrived on the scene 45 minutes after the initial call for help.

McGuire said one hour and 40 minutes elapsed between the time the Cormorant was deployed to when it pulled survivors from the water.

Earlier crash

There have been questions about the search and rescue presence in the province since an offshore helicopter crashed off St. John's earlier this year, killing 17 people.

Search and rescue services involving Cormorant helicopters are provided largely through Gander, but when the Sikorsky S-92 crashed on March 12, Cormorant units from Newfoundland and Labrador were conducting training exercises in Cape Breton. Officials said that added an extra hour to flight time to the crash scene, about 55 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

"I mean you look at it," said Sullivan, "it's nothing in comparison, but we probably have four or five fire halls out there that are manned with men 24 hours a day, just in one city, but we can't get one helicopter — search and rescue helicopter — that's manned and on standby, with all the activity that's off St. John's and on the Grand Banks."

CBC reporter Melanie Nagy reported from Witless Bay, the southern shore community where the missing fisherman lives, that emotions are running deep in the area as people are grieving over the tragedy, hoping that the missing man will be found and expressing anger over the search and rescue time. 

"A lot of people [are] questioning the search and rescue response time, just how long it took it took search and rescue crews to get to the crew of the Sea Gypsy."

A royal commission that studied the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger drilling rig, in which 84 people were killed, recommended putting a search and rescue team in St. John's that would provide 24-hour coverage of the then-developing industry.