Hundreds of people gathered in churches in southwestern Nova Scotia on Sunday as friends and religious leaders urged their communities to offer support to the families grieving the loss of five young fishermen.
“This is a time of sorrow,” said Sandy Stoddard, a veteran fishermen who was among the last to have radio contact with the captain of the Miss Ally, 21-year-old Katlin Nickerson.
“I’ve lost a piece of me,” he said as he spoke tenderly to crying relatives in Calvary United Baptist church in Woods Harbour, where about 500 people filled the pews.
Pastor Phil Williams urged the residents of the fishing village to continue supporting one another after a week filled with dashed hopes and criticism of the rescue and recovery efforts for the overturned hull of the boat.
The vessel’s emergency beacon was detected by search-and-rescue officials last Sunday, as a storm with hurricane-force winds created massive waves southeast of Liverpool.
The date of Feb. 17 will now be etched in the collective memory of Woods Harbour, said Williams.
“It has been a defining moment in our community’s life,” he said. “That which we have feared the most has come upon us.”
Police have not formally released the names of the fishermen, but family members have identified Cole Nickerson, Billy Jack Hatfield and Joel Hopkins as three crew on board. The other two men were identified at a local prayer service last Tuesday evening as Katlin Nickerson and Tyson Townsend.
Williams said during his sermon that the grandmothers and grandfathers he has visited in the weathered homes of the town told him that memories of previous disasters – such as the loss of seven men on a vessel 39 years ago – will help people persevere through difficult times.
“The old grandfather told me, with tears running down his cheeks, ‘We shall get through this together,’” Williams said to the congregation.
Families of the men aboard the Miss Ally sat in several rows at the front of the church, hugging each other and crying as church members sang and prayed.
Outside, Kenny Hatfield, the uncle of crew member Billy Jack Hatfield, spoke of the emotional rollercoaster of the past week.
“I had a nephew aboard who was like one of my own sons, and I’ve been crying ever since it happened. There’s nothing I can do about it. I loved him and he loved me too,” he said after the service as snow and wind swirled off the ocean.
“He was one of the best fathers. He had three little children. ... Their father’s gone now.”
Last night, the community received the news that no bodies were found when a group of professional divers went beneath the vessel on Saturday. The divers also found that the wheelhouse had been torn off, along with the life-raft.
At the Wesleyan church just down the road, family members also gathered and Rev. Rod Guptill delivered a sermon that he said focused on helping the extended family and friends of the five men.
“My message is that we will mourn with the mourning,” said Guptill the night before.
Many lights remained lit on the front porches of the community overnight Saturday – a gesture of support.
Stoddard particularly praised the fishermen who had gone out to the overturned vessel to search for the bodies, and the divers who went beneath the Miss Ally.
He called them “heroes,” and urged the community to join them at the wharf when they return.
However, he also said he remains critical of the Canadian Coast Guard and search-and-rescue officials for departing the scene of the Miss Ally on Wednesday after it was spotted.
Stoddard said he hopes that an investigation will examine why the federal vessel departed, and why local fishermen had to pressure the RCMP and the Defence Department to return to the area on Friday to see if any bodies were underneath the Miss Ally.
“[The fishermen] had to take matters in their own hands to try to bring our loved ones home,” he said. “I pray the government will look at this incident and realize they have to do a better job.”
RCMP said the HMCS Glace Bay conducted an assessment with a remotely operated vehicle on Sunday and confirmed that no bodies were aboard the 13-metre overturned boat, which was found about 240 kilometres southeast of Halifax on Saturday.
Officers also said the vessels and search teams would conclude the matter Sunday and return to Halifax.
Stoddard said there will be further efforts to commemorate the five young fishermen, and that he intends to drop wreaths at the site of the Miss Ally.
He said it will be difficult to return to halibut fishing because he will be thinking of the young men he once taught and advised on the North Atlantic.
“I’ll look across that ocean and I’ll always wonder, ‘Why didn’t you just take me God.’ Those children still had their lives to live.”