by Kathy Johnson
The four local divers who braved the elements to search the capsized hull of the Miss Ally have been nominated by the Municipality of Barrington for the Nova Scotia Medal of Bravery.
Donald Mahaney, Gary Thurber, Thomas Nickerson and Thomas Hennigar were nominated by Barrington Municipal Council for the honour late last month.
“Community reaction to how these four guys would be so dedicated to go out there and risk their lives for the community” is what prompted council to submit the nominations, said Warden Eddie Nickerson.
“They took their chances. They did something that needed to be done to help the families with some closure,” said Warden Nickerson. “It gave the community peace of mind knowing that somebody did as much as they could to make sure those boys weren’t under the boat.”
Even going out in the boats that took part in the search was “dangerous” given the weather conditions during that fateful week in February, noted Nickerson.
The Miss Ally capsized in a severe winter storm on February 17 while steaming home from the fishing grounds. Lost to the sea were skipper Katlin Nickerson and crewmen Joel Hopkins, Tyson Townsend, Steven Cole Nickerson and Billy Jack Hatfield.
“If there are any heroes, it’s the crew of the Miss Ally,” said diver Thomas Nickerson, who, like the others, doesn’t consider himself a hero.
“None of us were feeling especially brave,” recalled Gary Thurber, “but if the situation had been reversed I would have appreciated someone doing the same for me.”
The decision to attempt the dive on the capsized Miss Ally came on February 21, after veteran commercial diver Donnie Mahaney had been contacted by George Hopkins, who had lost his son Joel in the Miss Ally tragedy.
“I felt I wanted to do something,” said Mahaney, who was well aware of the risks and dangers associated with such a dive.
With sea conditions still not the best, the four men mulled the situation over, discussing the various scenarios they might encounter if they could get to the vessel, and if it stayed afloat.
“Diving was the easy part,” said Nickerson. “It’s the fear of the unknown that scares you.”
What turned out to be the deciding factor was “when the RCMP said they didn’t want us to dive,” said Mahaney. “That’s when we made the decision to go.”
The unsearched, overturned Miss Ally still floating in the North Atlantic just left too many unanswered questions for the families and the community.
A flotilla of fishing boats left Woods Harbour that day, including the Slave Driver, captained by Bobby Hines and loaded with diving gear and a zodiac, the Lady Faith, captained by Douglas Mood, the Crustacean Frustration, captained by Devin Dixon, the Rachel Elizabeth, captained by Kevin Nickerson and the 3 Generations, captained by Daryl Goreham.
While weather conditions forced some vessels to turn back, others persevered including the Slave Driver and the Lady Faith, making their way along the coast to a safe haven to spend the night. The diving team boarded the Slave Driver the next morning (Feb. 22).
“What we went out in that day, most people would have been terrified,” said Mahaney.
By Saturday (Feb. 23) the seas had started to calm, and after 30 hours of steaming and helping in the search, the divers were on the scene of the capsized Miss Ally.
“We had made up our minds not to be in a race,” said Mahaney. “We did a little snorkel first and scoped it out. When we saw the wheelhouse was gone... then we knew. We had envisioned going through an obstacle course with cables hanging down and debris floating around,” which would have made searching the overturned vessel extremely tricky.
Instead the divers found an empty hull, with no debris and no bodies. The forward and aft decks were still intact, but the skylight in the forward deck was gone, recalled Thurber.
“Miracles can happen but we knew going in there wasn’t any hope” of finding someone alive, said Mahaney, adding even if the vessel had been intact and the accident hadn’t happened in the middle of winter, there simply wouldn’t have been enough air to sustain someone for that length of time in the overturned vessel.
“There were a lot more people than us involved in this,” said Nickerson. “The boats and crews and the deck hands… the crew of the Coast Guard ship that went out to look for them when it was blowing 100. They’re all heroes.”