April 3, 2008

Capsized Sealers Give Chilling Account of Accident, Fight for Survival

By Andy Blatchford And Les Perreaux, THE CANADIAN PRESS

ILES-DE-LA-MADELEINE, Que. - Claude Deraspe was naked and clinging to a piece of ice in the North Atlantic when he noted with grim satisfaction that his bone-chilling escape from L'Acadien II had accomplished at least one thing.

"Now if I die," he thought to himself, "my body will be found."

Deraspe and crewmate Bruno-Pierre Bourque were the only two survivors from the six-man crew of the sealing vessel that capsized last Saturday while under tow by the Canadian Coast Guard.

The two young men gave a detailed account Wednesday of their escape from the boat that rammed into ice, overturned and filled with water within seconds.

Three men died, and the Canadian government promised Wednesday to resume the search for the fourth man lost at sea, Carl Aucoin.

The accident happened in the dark hours of Saturday morning while boat captain Bruno Bourque and sealers Gilles Leblanc and Marc-Andre Deraspe snored away in their bunks.

Deraspe decided to retire too, leaving Bruno-Pierre Bourque, the captain's son, at the helm of the L'Acadien II, with its disabled rudder. Aucoin was on watch.

The sky was full of stars and the wind was calm, Bruno-Pierre Bourque recalled.

The uneventful tow from the coast guard icebreaker Sir William Alexander ended when the big ship swerved to dodge a massive chunk of ice in the otherwise relatively clear waters.

The ice-cake ended up directly in the path of L'Acadien II.

"The boat hit the chunk of ice and that flipped us instantly," Bourque said.

"The icebreaker continued to pull."

Down below, the boat jolted to a halt with the sound of moorings snapping off, Deraspe said.

Within seconds Aucoin yelled that water was rushing into the cabin where all six men rested, manned the helm or kept watch.

"I got up and yelled, 'Get up! Get up!'," Deraspe told reporters in his hometown of Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que.

"I clapped my hands to wake up Marco, Bruno and Gilles."

At the helm, Bourque heard Wayne Dickson, the captain of the nearby Madelinot War Lord, yelling over the radio for the Sir William Alexander to stop.

Water was already rushing in so fast that escape through the main door was impossible for Bourque and Aucoin. Water pushed them out a back exit instead.

"Everything happened very fast," Bourque said. "We're talking about 15 seconds."

Bourque found himself beneath the upside-down boat with debris on his back. He doesn't remember precisely how he escaped.

"I opened my eyes and I said to myself, 'There's no way you're going to stay trapped here'," he said.

"After that my memory is very hazy until I was pulled from the water beside the upside down boat."

Bourque does remember looking up to see the crew of the Madelinot War Lord pluck him from the icy water.

"I owe them my life," he said.

Down below in the capsized L'Acadien II, dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and wool socks, Deraspe tried to get out a door. Instead, the rushing water ripped off his clothes.

He returned to the cabin to get air. As the water level in the upside-down boat rose to his armpits, then his shoulders, then his neck, he stuck his nose upward.

"I put my lips to the ceiling, which was the floor of the boat, and I said to myself, 'Don't take in air until the water is up to your ears'," Deraspe recalled.

"I took a big breath and I thought, 'You have to leave, or you'll stay here forever."'

Deraspe couldn't find the door. He felt around until he struck a control lever, which told him the captain's window was nearby. With air running out, he opened the window, kicked a piece of ice out of the way and swam to the surface.

He was clinging to the hull of L'Acadien II when the thought struck him that he would be sucked down with the ship if it sank. So he swam to a small ice pack and crawled out of the water.

A few feet away, Wayne Dickson on the Madelinot War Lord spotted him.

"I heard Mr. Dickson yell, 'Come on boys! Come on boys! Another one here!'," Deraspe said.

It took six men several attempts to haul Deraspe's numb body out of the water. The crew wrapped him in a blanket.

"Bruno-Pierre was there," Deraspe said.

"What a comfort. I didn't know where anyone else was."

"Thanks to Wayne and his crew for saving our lives."

Dickson wishes he could have done more.

"I was just hoping that somebody was going to come up," he said.

Dickson became a gruff and outspoken critic of the coast guard tow and rescue attempt hours after the accident. On Wednesday, he described an eager female coast guard diver who wanted to go back into L'Acadien II for one last look for Aucoin's body.

Her superior would not allow it.

The Madelinot War Lord continued to search the area for hours after the initial rescues, but no one else surfaced. When they finally left the scene, the coast guard had cut L'Acadien II loose. The 12-metre boat still bobbed near the surface as he left.

"I feel so sorry, for those guys, that we couldn't save them all," said Dickson, choking back tears.