On February 15, 1982 the unimaginable happened; the Ocean Ranger was gone taking 84 lives with it. 37 years later, one widow shares her powerful, moving and incredibly personal story
Noreen O’Neill pauses as she passes the stunning arrangement of flowers that sit atop her dining room table. Opening her home to share her experiences as a widow and a single mother after the loss of her husband, Paschal O’Neill, after the Ocean Ranger tragedy, she reflects for a moment on how ironic life can be some times.
The Offshore Life
“I was just thinking as I passed those flowers,” she begins quietly. On Friday past, O’Neill’s husband, Lars Nedrevage, a commissioning system lead engineer in the offshore industry, flew out to inspect his latest offshore project. Nedrevage, who’s responsible for checking platform construction, including safety systems, made sure his wife had flowers before he headed out to sea for a week on his rig. “My birthday was last week, so I got these beautiful flowers. And there were flowers on the table that day too, flowers from Paschal before he headed offshore,” she shared quietly.
Paschal and O’Neill knew each other growing up on the southern shore; he was from Fermeuse and she was from Aquaforte. They married May 15, 1976 and their son was born five years later to the day. “He was nine months old the day his dad died,” she offers, growing quiet for a moment.
That her husband ended up offshore didn’t come as much of a surprise, she continues. “When we met Paschal was working with CN Marine. He was on the first rig offshore Newfoundland, and also on the drill ships off Labrador. It was our life,” she says.
‘That was his job’
Was she ever fearful? She pauses. “I had fear of the helicopters flying back and forth to the Ocean Ranger. As for the rig, I had concerns of the danger onboard, but did not realize how bad it was.” O’Neill explains she drove her husband to and from the heliport; “In doing this I had the opportunity of meeting my husband’s work mates and some of the wives,” she reflects.
“On the last morning that I dropped my husband off, there was flight delays. Some of the guys were sitting in our car while waiting for news of their departure. I remember them and their conversation, they were talking of previous lists and blackout. I had a great sense of fear that morning when driving away. I wanted to go back and just ask him to come home. I called back to the heliport but they had already left. I know Paschal would have told me not to worry.”
The evening of February 14 began as normal. “I tucked my son in bed. It was a miserable night. My friend and her husband dropped by for a visit and the weather turned so bad they decided to stay. We talked about how horrible it must have been on the ocean that night.”
She woke the next morning to the sound of her son as usual. “I turned on the radio and the first news I heard was that the Ocean Ranger was in trouble.”
Initially, O’Neill took the news as positive. “My only thought was, he’ll be coming in early.” But things changed as the day progressed.
“As the day went by, I had many visitors, my father being the first one. I was full of hope and the inevitable news never entered my mind that day. There was lots of confusion, news announcements of rescue efforts, names of the crew members rolling up on the TV screen,” she shares, reflecting.
In those days, there was so much kindness. “Friends, family and people in the community were extremely kind and good to us. My grief lingered because my husband’s body was never found, I couldn’t lay him to rest. I instantly became a widow and a single mother. My husband was lost at sea, and we were lost without him.”
‘It was a Nightmare’
Life as she had known it had forever changed. “It was a nightmare, but thank God I had the strength to live through it and take care of my son.”
O’Neill tries to make it to Gonzaga High School annual Ocean Ranger Prayer Service held in memory of the 84 lives lost at St. Pius X Church each year. Organized by Gonzaga students and staff, the service honours those lost through song, prayer and silence.
“Every year, there’s people who attend the service for the first time,” she says.
She knows it’s difficult making the first step and distance is a factor too. Facing grief and the understanding of it is a big reason also, she explains compassionately. “Today there’s grief counseling, understanding and support for people who live through a tragedy as we did.”
Attending the service together with the families, Gonzaga organizers, the student body and Pious X community helps, she adds. “Families are still grieving. Gathering and meeting other family members who have gone through the same nightmare is helpful, to reach out to shake a hand, say hello and just let them know someone cares.”
She says she can’t imagine how she would have dealt with this tragedy without Gonzaga High and Pius X. “Speaking at the service and giving thanks to all the organizers, I find therapeutic. Before this, I was sitting in grief every year, and when you don’t face it and deal with it, it just lingers and festers. It’s an ongoing thing.”
The yearly service is a reminder of the impact of this tragedy on families and the community. “It’s an awareness for the oil industry and government of how important safety is to the community and to everybody,” she says.
One of the lives lost on Cougar 491 was a distant relative of O’Neill’s. “That loss of that young lady had an impact. As I said, I was more fearful of the helicopters going to and from the rigs than the rigs themselves, and it hit home. While loss is an awareness for everyone that all precautions that can be taken should be taken, the facts are more real than just a statistic. My son is now 37 and I have a grandson, Charlie, who is six. Our loss is felt.”
While life, as the saying goes, moves on, there’s always a sense of loss. “My son was deprived of knowing his father, who was so proud of him. It was really heartbreaking,” she says.
Paschal was the youngest of 12 children, he had a short life but a good one, she shares. He loved a good conversation and was a talented musician who played drums, piano and guitar. “Paschal will always be in our hearts,” she says.
On February 15, 1982, she lost a lot of friends also, she says – people she knew, those who were in her circle.
“Some lost more than one family member. One lady lost two sons on the Ocean Ranger and the same night a third son rode out the storm onboard another rig.”
On the 30th anniversary she attended the service for the first time. “I remember her because I organized the gathering at the Rooms and she was there. She was sitting and she looked so sad. I walked towards her, but I wasn’t sure if it was a good time to talk. I introduced myself anyway and we spoke and she opened up and we shared our loss, cried a bit and we laughed a bit.”
She feels loss, but also blessed in a way too. “We are very fortunate and thankful to have the support here in St. John’s through Gonzaga High School, Pius X, and have the monument site at the Confederation Building where we can go and pay our respect every year. We have many across Canada and the United States who don’t have that.”
While O’Neill isn’t sure she’ll be in town for this year’s service, she is making arrangements for a gathering on the 40th. A loss like this never leaves you, she shares, keeping active and staying involved helps.
“Getting together with other family members is still needed, we find strength from each other. It doesn’t erase the loss, nothing will.”