‘Hearts are extremely heavy’ as search for missing fishing crew ends

Missing fishermen identified as Bay of Fundy search stretches into 2nd day

The  Maritime Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre said late Wednesday afternoon it is suspending the search for five missing fishermen in the Bay of Fundy.

The news comes after 36 hours of searching for the crew of the Chief Williams Saulis, a scallop vessel based out of Yarmouth, N.S. The case will now be handed over to the RCMP to handle as a missing persons case.

The JRCC said the search covered 260 nautical miles by sea and air. One body was recovered on Tuesday night, but its identity has not yet been made public. 

CBC News has learned that Aaron Cogswell, Leonard Gabriel, Dan Forbes, Michael Drake and Geno Francis, along with captain Charles Roberts, were the six men on board the boat.

The Chief William Saulis scallop fishing vessel is seen in November 2020. (Katherine Bickford)

Lori Phillips said earlier Wednesday afternoon her son, Aaron Cogswell, 29, had been fishing with the captain of the vessel for seven years. She said his body was not the one recovered on Tuesday evening.

“I know he’s not coming back alive, but I want him to come back home,” she said in an interview.

“The province just lost six great people. Even though I don’t know them, they had to be good. They’re someone’s family. Someone’s missing them and I hope they all come home.”

A Cormorant helicopter from CFB Greenwood is seen in the air above the Point Prim Lighthouse on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the search was suspended. (John McCrossan)

Before he went out on his last fishing trip, Cogswell went to do his Christmas shopping, taking his nephew along and wrapping his gifts in preparation for the holidays.

Her son had high-functioning autism, Phillips said, and Roberts, the captain, took him under his wing.

“He was always there for him. He was his protector,” she said, adding that her son “had his daily struggles, but he loved fishing and that’s what he did.”

Phillips said the Chief William Saulis was a newer boat. She said she’s been waiting by the phone for news, but so far knows almost nothing about what happened.

The Chief William Saulis sent out an emergency beacon signal around 5:51 a.m. AT on Tuesday near Delaps Cove, N.S.

Search crews comb the icy, rocky beach near Delaps Cove, N.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (CBC)

Debris was spotted from the air later that morning and two life rafts washed ashore, but no one was on board.

Jacob Jacquard, a fisherman in Yarmouth, N.S., told the CBC’s As It Happens on Tuesday that the crew would have had survival suits and life jackets on board. He said he believes most of the men would have been sleeping in their bunks when the boat ran into trouble early Tuesday morning.

“If the guys were in their bunk, and a wave hit them and they rolled, they wouldn’t have had time to put on anything really. They wouldn’t have had time to even get on deck,” he said.

“Even with the immersion suits … With how cold the water is, it would be very slim chances to find anybody alive.”

Father of 12 among missing

Wearing one his sweaters, a distraught Stella Marie McAuley, the girlfriend of 55-year-old Leonard Gabriel, told CBC News he will be missed by his 12 children.

She said Gabriel had been fishing for over 30 years and described him as kindhearted and giving.

“He was always giving the kids next door treats,” she said.

She said he loved to cook and was always “joking around.” 

Michael Drake’s oldest sister, Sandra Drake, said her family is devastated by the news. Her brother has two adult children and splits his time between Nova Scotia and his home in Fortune, N.L.

Michael Drake is from Fortune, N.L., and was a crew member aboard the Chief William Saulis, which sent out an emergency beacon off Delaps Cove in the Bay of Fundy on Dec. 15, 2020. This photo was posted to Facebook by his cousin, Ashley Pittman. (Ashley Pittman/Facebook)

“He was so good. He was a good boy. Would help anybody,” she said, describing her brother as very tough, and a good worker who always supported his kids.

Sandra Drake said their father was also a fisherman and that her brother began fishing as a young boy.

“He loved the ocean … he lived on the water … He was always so busy, you could never catch him and talk to him, because he was always on the boats or down the wharf working on the boats,” she said.

“Now he’s gone.”

‘I just kind of put my head down and just prayed’

Alyjah Ritchie, a fisherman from Yarmouth, N.S., said Charles Roberts, the captain, is a family friend and carries the nickname Hot Dog around the wharf. 

Ritchie said he spoke to Roberts just a few days ago and didn’t want to believe it when he heard the boat was missing.

“But when I heard about it and I knew it was true, I just kind of put my head down and just prayed and hoped he was going to come home.”

Alyjah Ritchie is a fisherman from Yarmouth who knows the captain of the Chief William Saulis, Charles Roberts. (CBC)

Ritchie said Roberts is a good man and an experienced fisherman.

“Whatever happened, it had to have happened quick.”

Ritchie was heading out to fish for lobster on Wednesday morning. He said while conditions are much better than they were Tuesday, the dangerous nature of the job sits in the back of his mind.

“But like everybody else, you’ve got to keep going forward.”

One of Canada’s deadliest industries

The Nova Scotia fishing community has had its share of tragedies, and the industry remains one of the most dangerous occupations in Canada.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said 2018 was the deadliest year in over a decade, with 17 people dying aboard fishing vessels — seven of them in Nova Scotia waters. Between 2011 and 2017, there were 63 fishing vessel deaths across the country.

Search and rescue crews have been searching the area of Delaps Cove for over a day now. Late Tuesday evening, the Maritime Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre announced that the body of one of the six crew members had been found. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

In February 2013, five young Nova Scotian fishermen were killed when a wall of water crashed into the Miss Ally during a storm, capsizing the boat and rocking the small communities of Cape Sable Island and Woods Harbour.

The bodies of crew members Billy Jack Hatfield, Joel Hopkins, Katlin Nickerson, Steven Cole Nickerson and Tyson Townsend were never recovered.

The RJL scallop dragger also made headlines in 2010, when its four crew members were killed in the Bay of Fundy.

‘Trying to make sense out of something so tragic’

People living in the communities along the Fundy Shore are waiting anxiously as the search unfolds.

Susan Robinson-Bernie is a resident of Parks Cove. She has two fishermen in her family who have been helping with the search.

“If you’re not close to a fisher on the boat, you certainly know of these individuals around the wharves and in the other communities. Everybody knows somebody in the industry,” Robinson-Bernie told CBC’s Information Morning.

“So they’re coming together, talking to each other, just trying to make sense out of something so tragic.”

She said many families of fishermen, both past and present, are at the makeshift command centre at the Hillsburn United Baptist Church on Wednesday to show their compassion and support.

“This comes close to home, hearts are extremely heavy,” Robinson-Bernie said.

The Chief William Saulis is owned by one of southwest Nova Scotia’s larger shellfish companies, Yarmouth Sea Products Ltd. In addition to scallops, Yarmouth Sea Products is a major buyer of lobsters. 

A news release from the company on Wednesday said “all required maintenance and inspection of safety equipment was current and up to date.”

Many of the crew members are from the Yarmouth area.

“Fishing is not a job here, it’s a way of life,” the town’s mayor, Pam Mood, told CBC’s Maritime Noon.

We line the shores just praying as the vessels go out with our friends, our family members on board. This is absolutely the worst news that you could ever get. Ever.”

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