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Local chopper could have saved vessel

Sept. 15, 2009, St. John's – The owner of a fishing vessel from Newfoundland that sank on the weekend with the loss of at least one crew member says the tragedy might have been avoided if the federal government had based a helicopter in St. John's.


September 15, 2009
By Melissa Damota


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Sept. 15, 2009, St. John's – The owner of a fishing vessel from Newfoundland that sank on the weekend with the loss of at least one crew member says the tragedy might have been avoided if the federal government had based a helicopter in St. John's.


Laurie Sullivan of Calvert was critical of Ottawa on Monday, saying fishermen have long lobbied for a search and rescue helicopter in St. John's to assist in emergencies in the North Atlantic.


"It all comes down to dollars and cents," Sullivan said in an interview. "We have an airport. All we need is one search and rescue helicopter and a staff.''


The search and rescue helicopter station for the province is based in Gander, in central Newfoundland.


One fisherman, Robert Keough, 58, of Calvert, was confirmed dead on Monday.


The captain and two other crew members from the Sea Gypsy Enterprises survived after the vessel rapidly took on water in a rear compartment and sank on Saturday when it was about 120 kilometres east of St. John's.


But after three days of scouring the sea, rescue officials ended the active search on Monday evening for a missing crewman who remains unaccounted for.


A news release from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax said "all hope for his survival has unfortunately diminished due to the prevailing weather and sea conditions, and frigid water temperatures.''


"Every reasonable effort was expended and all leads were exhausted. It has been turned over to local RCMP as a missing person case.''


Maj. Paul Doucette, a rescue centre spokesman, said commercial vessels passing through the area will continue to keep an eye out for any sign of the missing man.


Sullivan, 51, said a large portion of the fishing fleet is based in the southern shore communities on the Avalon Peninsula and in St. John's, and it would make sense to have one Cormorant helicopter in the provincial capital to reduce flying time to offshore disasters.


"Everything can make a difference if you're in the water. Mr. Keough's body was found in the water afloat, so who knows when he died. How long was he alive in the water?'' he said.


"Minutes make a difference."


A spokesman for the Defence Department said the Cormorant that flew from Gander required one hour and 42 minutes from the time the squadron was "tasked" to undertake the rescue until it arrived on scene just after 1 p.m.


"This response time is well within the two-hour regulated response for search and rescue operations,'' Jay Paxton, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said in an e-mail.


He declined further comment.


In an e-mail, Maj. James Simiana of the Canadian Forces said Gander is the "optimal" location for the Cormorant search and rescue helicopters.


He said Gander has fewer weather delays than St. John's, and "it is better situated to cover the entire range of situations within the region, situations that occur in areas beyond just that off St. John's."


Sullivan said his small community has been badly shaken by Keough's death, and many are praying for the remaining seaman, who he identified as Chris McCarthy of Calvert.


Stephen Brothers, a 31-year-old fisherman who heard a distress call from the sinking vessel, said it was clear the incident happened quickly after a rear compartment on the boat took on water.


Brothers said the accident is prompting many in the small fishing communities along the Avalon Peninsula to once again question why there is no search and rescue helicopter based in St. John's.


"We're fighting this now for years and years and years. They don't care about the fishermen,'' he said.


Jack Harris, the NDP MP for St. John's East, said "there's a crisis in confidence in our province as to the ability of the Canadian Forces search and rescue to respond in a timely fashion to incidents at sea.''


"These men might have been saved.''


Harris has been critical of the search and rescue system since the crash of a helicopter in March that killed 17 people off Newfoundland, arguing that it wasn't acceptable that the rescue helicopters were all training in Cape Breton at the time.

 


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