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People in this Newfoundland town know the dangers of the sea -- the tragic deaths of fishermen and even of people who venture too close to the rocks.

But they stood on shore en masse yesterday and stared in disbelief as the search continued for the ocean's latest victims, three teenagers who perished in the frigid waters after venturing onto the unstable ice.

"To see three young men die like that, it's a hard place," said William Tuff, who has fished in the area for more than six decades.

Jeff Martin watched in shock as a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter pulled one of his friends out of the swirling waves and slushy ice off Pouch Cove.

"It can be really dangerous stuff. You have to have respect for the sea because if you don't . . ." Mr. Martin said, his voice trailing off as he looked out over the pounding waves where his friends died.

The 16-year-old student and hundreds of other residents of the coastal town of about 2,000 people stood silently along the windswept harbour, staring fixedly as the body of Jessie Elliott, 18, clad in a bright red marine survival suit, was pulled up to a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter.

"Nobody can believe what's happened," Mr. Martin said.

The popular teenager died Thursday along with his friends Adam Wall and Adrian (AJ) Sullivan, both 16, after heavy waves shoved them into frigid seas apparently as they jumped from ice pan to ice pan in a traditional Newfoundland game called "copying."

The bodies of the other two teenagers were still missing, despite a daylong search, as darkness fell last night over the community, located about 30 kilometres north of St. John's. "It's a total shock. You never expect to have three deaths and they all come from one school," Mr. Martin said, shouting to be heard over the booming waves and the roar of helicopters.

The three youths attended Holy Trinity High School in nearby Torbay. Mr. Elliott would have graduated from the school in June.

"Jessie was a fine fellow. He was really down to earth," Mr. Martin said. "He was an outdoorsman, always out on the snowmobile in the winter and the bike in the summer."

Mr. Martin said the game of jumping from ice pan to ice pan is a Newfoundland tradition, but teenagers know that it can be very dangerous.

As school buses dropped the classmates of the three youths off yesterday several girls choked back tears as they left bouquets of bright flowers by the roadside.

"You guys will always be in our hearts and in our memories," a simply worded card read.

The brilliantly coloured flowers stood in stark contrast to the frigid gray waters and slushy ice where the teenagers perished.

There are as many versions of how the three ended up in the water as there were witnesses.

Some people said the youths, who played a game of pool after school, were jumping on rocks on the shore of the exposed Pouch Cove harbour when one was swept into the ocean. The other two then jumped in to try to save him.

But another version is that the first was "copying" -- jumping from one piece of ice to another in the harbour -- and fell into the water and that his friends drowned trying to save him.

Terry O'Toole said he will never forget the looks on the faces of two of the youths clinging to a chunk of ice seconds before a wave swept them to their deaths.

"It's a hard picture to get out of my head," Mr. O'Toole said. "It's something I'll have to deal with too, I suppose."

Mr. O'Toole was one of about a dozen people who raced to the rocky, ice-covered shore Thursday after hearing that several boys had slipped into the water.

"By the time we got there, one was down. We never even seen him," said Mr. O'Toole, a quiet man who works at a steel company in nearby St. John's.

Pieces of rope, snatched from the trunks of cars, were rapidly tied together and tossed to the struggling youths as heavy surf pounded the rocks behind the town hall.

"One of the young fellows on the little piece of ice had a hold of the rope and I guess after hitting that water he was too numb to hold on to it."

The three then disappeared into the heaving sea after a huge swell forced the rescuers back from the water's edge.

"When I looked up, they were nowhere in sight," Mr. O'Toole said. "There was nothing I could do then. There was nothing anyone could do then, once they went under."

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Inspector Sean Ryan said yesterday that police are trying to piece together events but believe that the boys were jumping on ice pans near shore about 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

He praised the heroic efforts of a fourth youth, whom police will not identify at the request of the family, who apparently lay on his stomach and tried to reach his friends from the rocky shore. When that effort failed the teenager apparently ran to a nearby firehall for help.

Volunteers with an aluminum stepladder and ropes couldn't reach the youths in the heaving, swirling mass of slushy ice chunks that covered the cove.

"It was an amazing act of courage. For a young man to have such calm in utter chaos and to have the ability to come up with whatever he could to try to save his friends, and he did that with no consideration for his own life," Insp. Ryan said.

But that heroism was the only ray of light in a dark tragedy. Insp. Ryan said he spoke to Mr. Elliott's parents yesterday.

"Just the family having to identify their own child is in itself something no human being should have to go through," he said.

The tragedy was compounded by the stories of the attempts of the teenagers to save each other, Earnest Pippy, uncle of Adam Wall, said in an interview.

"One guy ended up on the ice and the other two guys tried to save him and they all lost their lives. It's terrible," Mr. Pippy said.

But many people wondered why the teenagers would venture out onto the thin, slushy ice that had been driven into the bay by winds.

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