Rescue officials in Halifax desperately tried to keep up the spirits of five young fishermen on a Nova Scotia fishing boat before an enormous wall of water crashed into the boat and killed them, a CBC News investigation reveals.
It's been almost a year since the crew of the Miss Ally ran into trouble during a storm on Feb. 17, 2013, after leaving from the wharf five days earlier to fish for halibut.
The boat capsized and the bodies of crew members Billy Jack Hatfield, Joel Hopkins, Katlin Nickerson, Steven Cole Nickerson and Tyson Townsend were never recovered.
It was a tragedy that rocked the small communities of Cape Sable Island and Woods Harbour in southwestern Nova Scotia.
CBC News has obtained the official logs and all the documents surrounding the search for the Miss Ally, including the tapes of the conversation between Katlin Nickerson — the captain of the Miss Ally — and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax.
When the Miss Ally got caught in a nor'easter about 120 kilometres southeast of Liverpool, the crew called for help and were told to try to head to Sambro, a fishing community about 20 kilometres south of Halifax.
Rescue officials called the crew once an hour to check their progress.
"How's everything on board? Everything good?" a man is heard asking.
"Everything seems to be OK. As good as they can be," Katlin Nickerson responds.
Soon after, conditions got worse.
"You just steer whatever course you think you need to steer. Forget about Sambro — you steer whatever course you need to steer to keep her upright," a rescue official tells the crew.
The response from Nickerson was simple: "Yup. We will."
'I had a funny feeling'
Della Sears, Katlin Nickerson's mother, said she had driven her son and the rest of the crew members to the wharf at West Head on Cape Sable Island the night they left.
"I cooked him supper," said Sears, in her first interview since her son's death.
"I had a funny feeling about that but I always did. I always had those thoughts, would that be the last time for him. Anyway, it must be a mother thing. We ate fast and we left the house."
Sears said the men were excited to go fishing.
"They were all pumped about they brought heaters and they weren't going to be cold this time," she recalled.
"They rushed and jumped aboard and said, 'Love ya, see ya.' That was the last time I saw them."
As the storm began and all the fishing boats in the area headed for shore, Sears was in touch with her son by satellite phone. He told his mother he needed supplies once he reached shore.
"I made arrangements with one of his friends to do that. We went off to Barrington, my dad called me and said he had heard the coast guard had been called," she said.
"That's the first I heard about it."
Sears said her son called her and told her not to worry.
"He said, 'Momma, you have to stop the rumours.' He said that the coast guard was coming just to block the wind and that they were all right," she said.
"And I lost him and never heard his voice again."
'Something went terribly wrong'
The community was rife with rumours and speculation over what happened in those next hours before all communication was lost with the crew of the Miss Ally.
The incident log from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax paints a grim picture.
"Lost inverter, therefore no lights, had a wave strike them on the stern and suffered some damage," says the log, which was obtained under the Access to Information Act.
The Miss Ally "took big wave but was still making progress, but then missed sked call," the log continues. "They are considered to be in distress."
All the while, Sears sat at home in Cape Sable Island with friends waiting, dialing the satellite phone on her son’s boat. It always went straight to voicemail.
One of the last log entries reads: "Miss Ally has missed his com schedule by over 15 minutes. He was advised to call us every hour to inform us that all was well onboard and if we did not receive his call we would be very concerned that something went terribly wrong."
Wall of water almost 20 metres high
The formal search for the crew members was called off two days after the last transmission from the boat and officials concluded there was little hope any of the men would have survived the rough seas and cold water.
A search of the area where the fishermen were believed to have perished turned up nothing but scattered debris from the 13.5-metre boat.
Months later, a buoy recording the size of waves told the real story of what happened to the Miss Ally that stormy night.
The records show the waves bounced around nine to 10 metres high, then a wall of water measured at almost 20 metres crashed into the boat.
The coast guard officials at the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre wrote they were sure that judging by the timing of the last call and position of the large wave, everything happened quickly.
Sears doesn't believe any more could have been done.
"The coast guard here was awesome. They still are," she said.
"There was nothing, I don't think, that they could have done. I heard his voice. He wasn't afraid. At that time I don't think any of them were afraid.
"I believe they thought they were going to get in."
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