Pop’s Pride – Part III

On September 6, 2016, the 22-foot fishing boat Pop’s Pride left port in St. John’s Newfoundland between 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. with four fishermen onboard. Three of the men were from a single family. The fourth was a family friend. All were from Shea Heights, a tight-knit community within the city limits of St. John’s. As the men hauled their nets that morning, winds increased to approximately 30-32 knots (56-60 kilometres per hour) along with seas of two metres (six feet). It appears the speedboat was overwhelmed by those conditions and swamped, throwing all four men into the ocean. Captain Glen Winslow and his two-man crew on the Roberts Sisters II found the body of one of the crewmembers. This is Part III of Pop’s Pride.

Back in Shea Heights, Sonya Walsh was busy doing last-minute preparations for their trip to Ontario the next day to attend a wedding.

“I was at my sister-in-law Jackie’s house about two o’clock getting my nails done, when my grandmother called. She said there was something going on down at the harbour — the Rescue Auxiliary were going to send some boats out to look for the boys because it was getting very windy.”

Sonya’s upset stomach suddenly got much worse.

“I looked at Jackie, Keith’s sister and said we’ve got to go down to the harbour,” Sonya explains.

Sonya says the scene at the harbour was a bit surreal. She was worried, but she also felt confused. A thousand questions kept running through her mind, but there were no answers. People were talking, but nothing was making sense.

“We were sitting on a rock and looking out the harbour and I was wondering why Keith would wait this long to come in because he had to go to the bank and stuff like that before we left for Ontario.”

And then someone came to her with the news that a body had been found.

“I don’t remember much of anything after that — just bits and pieces. I screamed and for some reason I jumped in the air and before I landed, the shoes flew off my feet. Someone took me to Jackie’s car and called an ambulance.”

The ambulance personnel gave Sonya something to calm her down and although nobody said what body had been recovered, she says she somehow knew it was her son.

She believes that she may have thought that way because she was convinced she had heard Keith Jr. come home earlier that day and walk across her floor when she was in a state of semi-consciousness — mostly asleep but yet aware of her surroundings.

“He may not have been there physically, but he was there — I heard him walk from the door (house entrance) to the kitchen — I’m sure of it,” she says.

Captain Glen Winslow in the wheelhouse of the Roberts Sisters II

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Captain Glen Winslow had a plan. He knew how he would attempt retrieving a body from the ocean and over the rails of a large 65-foot vessel, but he also knew he had to be extremely careful not to lose the body back to the ocean halfway through the retrieval process.

“We have a lead rope — a rope that sinks and what we do is let it go down and then pull it underneath and pull whatever we are trying to get onboard,” Glen explains.

Thankfully, Glen and his men were experienced fishermen and the process went without a hitch. It wasn’t long before they had the body of 18-year-old Keith Walsh Jr. secured onboard the Roberts Sisters II.

After the Coast Guard came to take possession of the body, someone suggested that because approximately 20 other vessels had arrived in the search area, Glen and his crew might want to return to port following their traumatic experience.

Glen refused.

He went to school with Eugene Walsh Sr. and he knew the other missing men as well and he was not satisfied to sit onboard his boat tied to a wharf waiting for news of his friends.

“There was probably another hour or more of daylight left and I wanted to continue to search, until dark at least,” he says.

After revising his coordinates and resetting his search grid pattern, Glen maneuvered the Roberts Sisters II into search mode again.

Amazingly, in the midst of many other search vessels on the scene, it was only a matter of three or four minutes before Glen and his crew sighted another body shortly after 7:00 p.m.

Repeating the same process they had carried out earlier, Glen and his crew had successfully secured 37-year-old Billy Humby’s body. Like Keith Jr., Billy was also wearing a personal flotation device (PFD).

Although TSB investigators could not determine if Keith Sr. and Eugene were wearing PFDs, they did have them and were known to wear them regularly, especially in sea conditions like they had on September 6.

Subsequent searches for Keith Sr. and his father Eugene would prove unsuccessful.

TSB investigators tried to piece together the events leading up to the capsizing through various means, including interviews with fishermen and others in the area on September 6. Its report stated that a passing fishing vessel sighted the Pop’s Pride hauling nets off Cape Spear about 9 a.m. A second fishing vessel sighted the crew of the ill-fated speedboat still hauling nets a half hour later. Rather than resetting the nets, they were kept on board the vessel to be taken ashore, because the two Keiths were scheduled to be out of the province for the rest of the week.

 At 7:22 the following morning, another fishing vessel participating in the search located a fishing gear marker buoy belonging to the Pop’s Pride.

Keith Walsh Sr. (aft), Billy Humby

The TSB wrote “The search vessel recovered the buoy and found it to be attached to a gillnet. As the crew onboard began to recover the net, they found that it was entangled with three other nets as well as with two paddles and a gaff, all belonging to the Pop’s Pride. The end of the fourth net was attached to the Pop’s Pride.”

The submerged speedboat was recovered, but it didn’t provide many clues as to what happened. The hull was intact and the engine was still attached to the stern.

In a press release issued November 27, 2017 the TSB stated: “Once all gillnets were recovered, the load onboard the small vessel, combined with the environmental conditions, likely caused the Pop’s Pride to swamp and sink, leaving the four fishermen in the water. No distress signals were received and it wasn’t until 15:39 that family and community members reported the vessel overdue.”

The investigation also determined that the Pop’s Pride did not have an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), nor was it required by regulation to carry one.

Keith Walsh with his dad Eugene

The loss of the Pop’s Pride and its crew struck a severe blow to the heart of the community of Shea Heights. The entire town was mourning the loss of four well-known and vibrant citizens.

Losing three members of their family was more than some of the Walsh family members could bear. Sonya Walsh was in a form of shock for months. She says she felt unaware that her husband was not home probably because she learned of her son’s loss first and her brain reacted in such a way that she couldn’t comprehend further loss.

It is also possible that because her husband’s body was not recovered, her response was fairly typical of many who lose someone at sea when they convince themselves their loved one is safe and would come home later.

Sonya lived in a daze for months and finally, about six months after the accident, she woke up one day and asked where her husband was. Life is never the same for those who lose loved ones to the sea especially when bodies are not recovered. When there are multiple losses, the grief and suffering is compounded.

Jim Wellman

Contributor - Newfoundland

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