OHS Canada Magazine

Survivors of fishing boat sinking didn’t think they had much time left: Rescuer

Avatar photo

September 28, 2023
By The Canadian Press

Health & Safety Coast Guard fishing safety Quebec rescue

Members of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron (Trenton) conduct a search and rescue (SAR) exercise with the Canadian Coast Guard in this file photo. Photo: Aviator Randy Bross, 8 Wing Imaging, Canadian Armed Forces photo

By Jacob Serebrin

The three survivors of a fatal fishing boat sinking off the coast of Quebec Monday didn’t think they would survive much longer when a search and rescue helicopter appeared, according to one of the rescuers.

Sgt. Anthony Bullen, a search and rescue team leader with 103 SAR Squadron based in Gander, N.L., said he didn’t have much time to talk with the survivors during the rescue — he and his colleagues were focused on bringing people up and providing medical care for a man they saw lose consciousness.

“Once we landed in Corner Brook, all of them said they didn’t figure they had much time left and that as soon as they saw the helicopter they were so happy to see us,” said Bullen, who was on the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter that responded to the distress beacon sent by the crew of the Silver Condor.

He said you could see the relief in people’s faces when he and his colleagues got them aboard the helicopter.

“It’s definitely got to be some sort of overwhelming feeling to know that someone actually knows you’re there and is looking for you, coming to pick you up,” he said.


Six people were aboard the fishing vessel out of Blanc-Sablon, Que., about 1,300 kilometres northeast of Montreal, when it sank early Monday morning. Provincial police said Yves Jones, 65, Dean Lavallee, 53, and Damon Etheridge, 36, died after the boat sank.

All of the survivors were wearing immersion suits, as were two of the three victims, Bullen said.

“One (survivor) had a minor injury, but all three of them were extremely hypothermic,” Bullen said. “A couple of them had flooded suits, so they had some sea water in their suits cooling them off and they were exhausted.”

Bullen said he and his colleagues didn’t know exactly what they were headed toward when they set out toward the distress beacon, which had sent a signal at around 2:30 a.m. They only knew it was associated with a fishing boat believed to have six people aboard.

“We got dressed en route, in dry suits and harnesses, ready to do whatever was needed,” he said, adding that they brought a pump, in case the ship could be saved.

The helicopter arrived at approximately 6:15 a.m., around the same time as a large freighter — which was also responding to the distress signal — Bullen said.

“I spotted someone in an immersion suit off the left-hand side and we proceeded to get in position in the wind to hoist them,” he said. “That one person in an immersion suit turned out to be two people, one person in an immersion suit, one person not, and as we were pulling in to pick these guys up, the flight engineer spotted someone else off the right-hand side.”

Bullen said the other search and rescue technician aboard the helicopter was lowered down above the choppy seas, amid the breaking whitecaps, to pick up the first two people and then they went back for the other person they’d spotted.

“From there, we just started picking people out of the water,” Bullen said.

The first person who came up required intensive medical care, he said, which became his focus while the other rescue technician brought people up.

With four people aboard, the two technicians switched positions and Bullen went down.

“It feels like second nature hooking up, getting checked and getting hoisted out into the water. I mean, sometimes, sure, in bigger sea states, that can be a little bit more of a daunting feeling, but really, for us, it’s almost second nature, we’re doing it that often,” he said.

He then went down again to check on the sixth person, who was recovered by the coast guard.

“Hopefully they could do something for him, because we were tied up in the helicopter trying to provide the best care we could for the guy that we witnessed go unresponsive,” he said.

The tragedy has affected everyone in Blanc-Sablon, a community of around 1,100 people on Quebec’s eastern border with Labrador, Mayor Andrew Etheridge said.

“Dean Lavallee, Yves Jones and Damon Etheridge were all great men who have families and loved ones mourning their loss. Dean Lavallee was the father of one of the survivors but being a small town everyone knows each other,” Etheridge wrote in a statement. Damon Etheridge, a father of three and a beloved partner, was the mayor’s cousin.

“Fishing is a very dangerous job, between climate change, the cost of living crisis and (employment insurance) changes, it’s becoming a less viable option to make a living. Even though we are born with the ocean in our blood, people are asking themselves if it’s worth it,” Etheridge said. “Most fishermen will definitely return, but I am certain a few will decide not to go back out fishing next year.”


Stories continue below