Air search for French cargo ship began 10 hours after attempted radio contact
HALIFAX, N.S. — Search and rescue officials waited about 10 hours before starting a full-scale air search for a capsized French cargo ship after the coast guard repeatedly tried to make radio contact with the vessel.
The 37-metre Cap Blanc, a vessel from the French islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon, sank about 16 kilometres south of Marystown on Tuesday afternoon. None of the four crew had been located by Wednesday evening.
The disappearance of the vessel remained an unsolved mystery for search and rescue officials, who say they never received any distress signal before the ship capsized in the mouth of Placentia Bay.
The roll-on, roll-off ship left Argentia, N.L., with a load of road salt bags at around noon on Monday for the journey home.
Chris Fitzgerald, a director of the rescue co-ordination sub-centre in St. John's, said the coast guard communications centre for Placentia Bay attempted to reach the vessel at 8:30 p.m. on Monday to confirm where it was after the vessel failed to give a scheduled report on its location.
"They tried communications to raise her ... the area where she was in is sort of a flat area for VHS (radio) coverage, and there was no big immediate concern. They just figured she wasn't in communications range," he said.
Maj. Denis McGuire, a spokesman for the joint rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax, said the centre continued to attempt to reach the ship by radio, and then telephoned the owners, Alliance SA, in St-Pierre-Miquelon.
"They (the agent) felt this was a fairly common occurrence for loss of communications due to the nature of their travels and there was no concern at that time," said McGuire.
About an hour later, the coast guard ship George R. Pearkes also attempted to reach the cargo vessel by radio, without success.
McGuire said the coast guard ship was assigned to follow the expected route of the missing vessel.
"The ship proceeded from roughly the area of Marystown, heading out to St-Pierre-Miquelon ... and then returned," he said.
The coast guard centre also requested harbour searches to check if the vessel had pulled into port to avoid winds of 50 to 70 km/h, but that proved fruitless.
McGuire and Fitzgerald said a request for aircraft was made at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, about 10 hours after the first attempt to make radio contact.
McGuire said there was a time lapse because search and rescue officials believed a surface search was sufficient.
"Given that it was night time, an air search would have been less effective," he said.
The capsized bow of the vessel was located by the Hercules aircraft by 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and the vessel sank early in the afternoon.
An empty life-raft was located by an RCMP boat, along with a few other pieces of debris.
Fitzgerald said it also appears that the vessel's emergency beacon didn't emerge from the vessel when it overturned, possibly because it got caught up in the ship's rigging.
"It she rolled very quickly it's quite possible they didn't float free," he said.
An RCMP patrol vessel, the Murray, reported hearing some sounds from the bow of the vessel prior to its sinking, but it was unclear on Wednesday what the noises were.
McGuire said that search-and-rescue divers were preparing to attempt a dive to investigate the sounds, but the ship sank as they were evaluating the safety of the effort.
There were five survival suits on board, but none were found. The only debris located was an empty life-raft.
The ship's owner, Alliance SA, operates small general cargo vessels that make regular runs between the small islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Newfoundland.
The ship loaded salt in Argentia, but as spokesperson for the firm involved, A. Harvey and Co., said he had no comment on how much of the material was loaded on the French ship, or how it was loaded.
A spokesperson for Alliance SA wasn't available for comment.
Update - Jan 02, 2009
French authorities recover three bodies from Cap Blanc
Updated Tue. Dec. 23 2008 5:14 PM ET, The Canadian Press
ST-PIERRE, France -- French officials say they have recovered the bodies of three crewmen who were aboard a freighter that sank off Newfoundland earlier this month.
Jean Pierre Bercot, the prefect of French islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon, says divers searched the wreck of the Cap Blanc and found three of the four men who were thought to be aboard when the ship sank.
The French freighter, loaded with road salt from Argentia, N.L., capsized en route to its home port in the French territory, which is about 20 kilometres from Newfoundland's south coast.
Bercot wouldn't say when the recovery took place, saying only that funerals were being held for the men on Thursday.
Bercot says the vessel was 134 metres from the surface and that divers searched all of it, but didn't find the fourth man.
Jean Guy Urdanabia, Thierry Duruty and Robert Marcil were recovered, while Robert Bechet remains missing.