In a crowded St. Pius X Church in St. John’s Friday morning, amid people young and old, a large group of family members of the men who perished in the Ocean Ranger disaster sat together up front.
For 37 years, many of them have attended the memorial service on each anniversary, never missing the chance to publicly remember their loved ones who lost their lives on that terrible day: Feb. 15, 1982.
But off to the side, about five rows back, Roger Howell sat quietly with his girlfriend, Jackie Gould.
His father, Albert Howell, was one of 84 men — the entire crew, 56 of them from this province — who died when the semi-submersible oil rig was hit by a rogue wave, capsized and sank in a vicious storm in the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland.
Roger Howell made the hour’s drive from Hopeall to be there — the first time he attended the memorial service.
“It was the right time,” he said, when asked why he decided to be here this year. “I’m ready.”
The Ocean Ranger sinking was the worst offshore drilling disaster in Canada’s history.
Howell still has a hard time talking about it. He was nine years old when the family got the news of his father’s death. The oldest of three brothers — with two brothers ages 6 and 3 at the time — he suddenly became the man of the house.
“I grew up fast, that’s for sure,” he said, his voice quivering.
Albert Howell’s name and the names of the others were read aloud during the service by Lloyd Major, who was a radio operator on the Ocean Ranger between 1980 and Feb. 11, 1982.
“There are no words to describe the loss,” Major said.
As each name was read, Gonzaga High School students Jumanah Babar and Danielle Taylor lit one of the 84 candles on the altar.
Another former Ocean Ranger crew member, Bill O’Neill, was also part of the service, having laid the wreath on behalf of the families, while former crewman Adrian Kavanagh, who gave thanks on behalf of the families, noted the important safety changes that were made following the Ocean Ranger disaster.
“Because of this tragedy, people working in the offshore have a safe place to work,” Kavanagh said.
The hour-long service, which was hosted by Gonzaga High School, saw several touching moments, such as when Gonzaga teacher Amanda Craig choked up while presenting the historical background of the Ocean Ranger disaster. She got particularly emotional when she said there were no survival suits on board the Ocean Ranger, which she said was later known as “the Ocean Danger.”
In speaking of the significance of the event on people’s lives 37 years later, Gonzaga student Anna Edwards said, “It not only took 84 lives, but 84 futures. Appreciate the future we are so lucky to have … because not everyone is so lucky.”
The service featured musical performances by Gonzaga band and choir members, including a vocal solo by Megan Moret, whose heart-wrenching rendition of Josh Groban’s, “To Where You Are” left many wiping tears from their eyes.
“It’s a beautiful celebration,” said Ann Putt, whose husband, Douglas Putt, lost his life in the Ocean Ranger disaster.
Putt said she never misses the chance to attend the memorial, and was joined by her son, Jeff, her daughter, Tina, and her granddaughter, Frankie.
“I enjoy it every year,” said Putt, holding the white carnation she received during the ceremony when family members were asked to step forward to receive one. “These memorials do help us a lot.”
Howell was glad he came, too.
“It was really nice,” he said, smiling, while Gould wiped away tears. “I feel complete.”
He chose not to step forward to get a carnation.
“I’m not ready for that yet,” he said. “Maybe next year.”