Nova Scotia

Rescuers save all 31 crew members hours before ship sinks off Nova Scotia coast

Rescuers saved all crew members from the fishing vessel Atlantic Destiny — hours before the vessel sank Wednesday afternoon. The ship was in distress and taking on water after a fire off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia Tuesday night, according to the company that owns the vessel.

The Atlantic Destiny sank late Wednesday morning after the dramatic helicopter rescue mission

A picture showing the transfer of the final four crew from the Atlantic Destiny, which was in distress off the coast of Nova Scotia, to a Canadian Coast Guard ship Wednesday morning. The ship sank hours later. (Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre)

Rescuers saved all 31 crew members from the fishing vessel Atlantic Destiny — hours before the vessel sank Wednesday. The ship was in distress and taking on water after a fire off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia Tuesday night.

"That was a huge relief for all of us. We've been in contact through the night and really concerned with the crew on board and making sure they got home safe," Martin Sullivan, the CEO of Ocean Choice International, which owns the vessel, told CBC's Information Morning Wednesday.

It had been thought there were 32 crew members on board, but Ocean Choice said that was its error. The ship was supposed have 32 people aboard, but one crew member never showed up, so the vessel left port with only 31 people.

The Atlantic Destiny ran into trouble after a fire broke out around 8 p.m. AT Tuesday, possibly in the engine room, said Sullivan. The fire knocked out the vessel's power and then the ship started taking on water. 

The 43-metre-long scallop vessel was about 220 km off the coast of Yarmouth, N.S. High winds and six- to eight-metre-high seas complicated the rescue.

Video footage of Atlantic Destiny in rough waters late Tuesday night

3 years ago
Duration 0:58
The ship was in distress and taking on water after a fire off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia Tuesday night. After a lengthy and challenging rescue, all 31 crew members made it off the vessel safely. Video courtesy of Halifax Joint Rescue Coordination Centre.

"It's fairly treacherous, obviously you are on a floating cork in the ocean riding these waves and crests so it can be very challenging,"said Lt.-Cmdr. Brian Owens, a spokesperson for the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC), a federal government search and rescue organization. "You can imagine now a helicopter hovering over top, lowering a cable down to extract individual crew members to the helicopter, it certainly adds a level of risk to the operation."

The captain and three crew members remained on board initially, while the other 27 were lifted off the ship one-by-one. The individual lifts meant rescue crews performed this manoeuvre with the helicopter 27 times. 

The Atlantic Destiny was still in rough waters when rescue crews removed the final crew members from the vessel. (Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre)

The 27 crew members were lifted off the vessel by a Canadian CH-149 Cormorant search and rescue helicopter and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. 

It took several trips by both helicopters to get all those people off the ship, said Owens. 

"This was one of the craziest rescues that I've been a part of, for the situation and how many hoisted we had to do and how challenging it was trying to calm the aircraft to go get the survivors picked up," said Phillip Morales, avionics electrician first class, with the United States Coast Guard. "It was really, really challenging."

A Canadian military CH-149 Cormorant helicopter used to rescue the crew of the Atlantic Destiny was at the Yarmouth airport on Wednesday. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Sullivan called the rescue "unbelievable" and a testament to the hard work of rescue crews.

The Canadian and United States coast guards, as well as several offshore fishing vessels, including the Cape LaHave, Maude Adams, Atlantic Preserver and Atlantic Protector, came to the aid of the crew, according to a news release from Ocean Choice. 

It took about 12 hours for JRCC to clear everyone off the Atlantic Destiny, Owens said it would have taken even longer if the Americans hadn't helped.

"They were gracious enough to come and provide that assistance," said Owens. "Without it we would still be trying to transport people to shore."

The United States Coast Guard helicopter that helped rescue the crew of the Atlantic Destiny. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

4 crew members stayed behind

The Atlantic Destiny's captain and three crew members remained on board, along with two search and rescue technicians. They managed to restore power and began pumping water out of the Atlantic Destiny. But those efforts were ultimately ineffective. 

"We know she was taking on water and they were trying to keep ahead of it with the pumps, but they had to abandon at the end there ... we're not sure of the current status," said Sullivan.

At around 8 a.m. Wednesday, everyone left the Atlantic Destiny and went aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Roger.

The rest of the crew was taken to Yarmouth, where they received medical attention, food and accommodations. It doesn't appear that anyone was seriously injured. 

The majority of the crew from the Atlantic Destiny were flown to the Yarmouth airport. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Tuesday night into Wednesday morning was rough for families of the fishermen as they struggled to find out what was happening to their loved ones. Many knew the Atlantic Destiny was in trouble but didn't know how bad the situation was. 

Hannah Fancy — whose brother Tyler is a fisherman and was on board the Destiny — found out the boat had a fire after reading a Facebook post. 

"It felt like a punch to the gut. It was literally your worst fear coming true," she said, "I just felt totally numb, but also nauseous and just desperately hoping and praying for some miracle to happen." 

Fancy, her mother and other family members stayed up almost all night waiting for news about the ship. Rumours circulating online made things more difficult.

"We just wanted to know the facts ... and we were getting a lot of different things, and we had no way of knowing what was the truth," she said.

"You've already given the worst-case scenario to yourself, you need something to say, 'This could end well.'"

At 3 a.m. on Wednesday, they got word that helicopters were airlifting people off the ship. Then just before 5 a.m., Tyler phoned his mother to tell her he was okay.

"I felt a huge sense of relief and almost a little ecstatic that a good ending could happen. I guess you think if something bad happens on the water that there is no possible good ending for that, but there was a good ending," she said.

Ship has sunk

The Atlantic Destiny ended up sinking Wednesday. 

It had stayed above water early Wednesday morning, but it didn't last much beyond that, JRCC said the vessel went down at 10:36 a.m. AT,

It's still not clear what caused the fire, but that and the loss of the vessel will be investigated, said Sullivan.

"We're just so happy that everyone is safe," he said.

Thirty-one people were on board the Atlantic Destiny, a factory freezer trawler based in Riverport, N.S. It is part of the fleet owned by Ocean Choice International of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Transportation Safety Board)

This isn't the first time the ship has run into trouble. In March 2017, the Atlantic Destiny suffered a catastrophic engine failure that caused the ship to lose power.

A year later, a Transportation Safety Board report blamed the failure on a combination of maintenance gaps, a broken emergency stop mechanism and the actions of an inexperienced crew member.

The Atlantic Destiny is based out of Riverport, N.S., and is one of Ocean Choice's six offshore fishing vessels.


With files from Information Morning and Kayla Hounsell