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With search called off, military helps in Nova Scotia boat recovery effort

The military returned to the southwest coast of Nova Scotia on Thursday to look for a capsized fishing boat as Ottawa faced mounting pressure from an angry community demanding the recovery of the vessel that could contain the bodies of five fishermen.

Grieving families in Woods Harbour, N.S., emerged from a meeting with the RCMP at a local community centre, relieved to hear that the Defence Department agreed to return to the area to search for the upturned boat, last spotted by the coast guard Wednesday afternoon.

"I'm feeling elated right now," said George Hopkins, whose son Joel was aboard the 13-metre Miss Ally before it capsized late Sunday. "At least we're doing something."

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Earlier in the day, federal search and rescue officials said it was up to the RCMP to decide what to do because the case was handed to the Mounties when the search for the men was called off.

After the meeting, the RCMP confirmed what the families said they were told about an aircraft and a ship being sent.

But by late afternoon, there was some confusion about the extent of the military's involvement.

Major Martell Thompson, a spokesman for the military's Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax, confirmed that a military aircraft was dispatched to the area to determine whether the Miss Ally was still afloat.

However, Major Thompson said he didn't know of any plans to send a vessel to the area.

Marlene Nickerson, whose son Cole was on the boat, said she wanted to thank the community for applying pressure on the government to launch a recovery operation.

"Hopefully we can bring 'em home," she said through tears. "I won't be pleased until I see him again."

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Local fishing boats headed out from Woods Harbour to look for the boat, which flipped over as it was battered by 10-metre waves and winds approaching hurricane force.

Friends of the five lost men stood on the dock and called out to the departing boats, "Bring our boys home!"

Some along the wharf said they were angry that the military had ended the search late Tuesday without saying what they would do about the upturned vessel.

Tim Nickerson headed out in his boat after lunch, saying before he left that fishermen would step in when the government wouldn't.

"Somebody's got to do something," he said on the dock. "These are local boys and the boat is there – do something."

The missing crew – all of them under the age of 35 – were on an extended halibut fishing trip when the military was alerted by a water-activated distress beacon just after 11 p.m. Sunday.

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Local fishermen and their families weren't the only ones calling for quicker action on the water.

Nova Scotia Fisheries Minister Sterling Belliveau, a former fisherman who represents the area, said he approached federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield to determine what could be done.

"I asked him to consult with his cabinet colleagues and review his options," he said in Woods Harbour. "I am just bringing the concerns of the community to him."

Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Ashfield, said the RCMP was in charge of the file.

Pastor Phil Williams at the Calvary United Baptist church in Lower Woods Harbour said the community rallied behind the families' call for a salvage operation.

"I would venture to say that if you took a poll you would have 110 per cent," he said. "(We) want Miss Ally brought up at all costs, expense, whatever. It's essential for peace and closure."

Pierre Murray, regional manager of operations for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said a team of investigators arrived in Woods Harbour on Wednesday.

Mr. Murray said they plan to review communications between the crew and family members, friends and search and rescue officials.

Mr. Hopkins has said he was in touch with the crew shortly before its emergency locator beacon went off Sunday night.

Mr. Murray said the safety board's investigators will also look at the boat's stability assessments, construction and inspections as well as the crew's experience and training. The vessel was built in 2006 and had to be inspected every five years.

"We're going to try to find out what was going on, what type of weather they were experiencing, if the boat was damaged or if it was taking on water," he said from Halifax.

"The difficulty is that we don't have a boat and we don't have survivors, so what we can do is try to get as much as we can right now."

Mr. Murray said the independent agency once recovered a small fishing boat from the bottom of the Bay of Fundy to help with their investigation into a sinking that claimed four lives. But he stressed that conditions were more favourable then.

"It was a bit different from going out there in the open sea and trying to recover a boat," he said.

In January, 2004, the 9.7-metre Lo-Da-Kash, based in Maces Bay, N.B., was heading back from Campobello Island when it sank with four people on board. The Transportation Safety Board conducted a dive on the vessel in May, 2004, and it was raised to the surface four months later and towed to shore.

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