The difference between life and death for one freshly minted RCMP officer and five of his colleagues 50 years ago was one smooth push.
Only two weeks a graduate, Murray Smith, then 19, was oblivious to the electrical storms that often whipped Lake Simcoe, about 64 kilometres north of Toronto, into a raging basin of 1.5-metre waves. After several hours patrolling on the lake with four colleagues on June 7, 1958, he switched places with an eager on-shore officer asking for a turn.
In fair and calm evening weather he pushed the boat into the lake - never to see the men alive again.
"There were years I woke up in a cold sweat, thinking about it," Mr. Smith, now 69, said yesterday outside the Toronto North RCMP detachment in Newmarket, Ont. "I think it's probably one of the first times I realized there really is a God."
Families, descendants and friends of the five drowned Mounties gathered Saturday to commemorate the lives of the fallen officers with a memorial and plaque dedication. It was the largest single-incident loss of life in RCMP history.
Mr. Smith paused several times to let emotions pass as he read Psalm 23, which refers to troubled waters. He told the crowd of scarlet-jacketed officials it was an honour to have served with the men.
"To me, these are the real heroes," said Rev. Gerry McMillan, an RCMP chaplain who presided over the ceremony, during a reception that followed. "Individuals that, when they leave their house in the morning, they don't know if they're going to come back at night."
While the 2005 fatal shootings of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alta., sent a wave of sorrow through the force nationwide, the accident that killed five was quickly relegated to the newspaper archives. A retirees association set the memorial service in motion, complete with posterboards telling the story and black and white photos showing rows of officers marching solemnly to an island church service and people striding up a dusty path to the potluck afterwards.
The routine patrol was comprised of one seasoned corporal and four officers 22 years old and younger who weren't from the area and unfamiliar with the lake. It's believed they were caught off-guard by treacherous weather, which capsized the 14-foot boat. It was discovered late the next morning. Life-jackets were gone, but when the men's bodies surfaced, only the corporal was wearing one.
As the commanding officer that day, Cpl. Herbert Smart, then 33, would have been humbled by the ceremony, said Rita Sweet, his wife at the time.
"He was a true policeman and served his country well," she said. "The force was his life."
She remembered a serious but funny man who was active in the community, played a slew of sports, and had plans to join a church ministry in retirement.
Eugene Fedak, the first cousin of Const. Maurice Melnychuk, recalled good times chumming around and fixing the then 21-year-old up with girls.
"It's kind of a sad moment, yet happy, that the force was able to recognize the memory of these five men," he said. "It was an awful shock when we heard about the event.
"Now all we have is fond memories."
Also perishing in the incident were Const. Glen Farough, then 22, Const. David Perry, then 19, and Const. George Ransom, then 21.
The tragedy eventually led to changes in Canada's boating regulations, including more stringent warnings about how much weight vessels can carry. The RCMP continued patrolling Lake Simcoe until about 10 years ago, when the duty was passed to local police.