Disaster at sea: Reliving the horror and struggle to survive
The picturesque town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is not a place you immediately associate with death and disaster.
Pretty, wood-framed houses, painted in pastel blue, green, and yellow, elegant churches and narrow, winding streets suggest an idyllic, tranquil past.
But take a stroll along the waterfront, past the sailing schooners and fishing boats, and you realize that this town's long association with ships and the sea has too often ended in tragedy.
At one end of the quay, there's a memorial in the shape of a compass rose, with black marble columns at each of the cardinal points. On those columns, the names of 35 ships lost at sea and the names of hundreds of fishermen who went down with them.
The students who attended Class Afloat, a private school that combines sailing a tall ship and classes with travel to exotic places, would have seen that memorial every day as they walked back and forth to the school from their living quarters.
Perhaps some of them lingered long enough to examine the names on the somber columns and thought about the power of the ocean and the fragile gap that separates life from death. What they couldn't have known was how soon they would experience that fragility for themselves and how their destinies would become part of the town's history.
Lunenburg was the backdrop for W5's documentary about 48 students from Class Afloat, how they and eight teachers and eight professional crew survived the capsizing and sinking of the tall ship, Concordia, 500 kilometres off the coast of Brazil on February 17, 2010.
For a documentary filmmaker, it had all the elements for a powerful story -- a majestic sailing vessel, young people with everything to live for, a freak storm, a struggle to abandon the ship that sank in 18 minutes, and then 41 hours adrift in the Atlantic, hoping for rescue they sometimes felt would never come. They were finally rescued and everyone survived.
There are many ways to tell a story like this, but we decided to concentrate on the students. What was it like for 16, 17 and 18 year-olds, young men and women so full of life and hope, to face the prospect of drowning in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean?
We needed to interview some of the crew to provide a timeline and professional perspective on what happened. But the bulk of the narrative would have to be carried by the students. However, I knew the story would live or die on the strength of its interviews and wondered if a group of teenagers could articulate clearly what they had been through.
I needn't have worried.
When associate producer Chad Derrick spoke to students on the telephone as part of the pre-interview process, he was immediately impressed and moved by the way the young men and women told their stories. He felt that if we got half of what they said on the telephone repeated in on-camera interviews, the documentary would work.
But talking on the telephone is one thing. Telling your story on camera, with two cameramen, a soundman, a producer and an interviewer -- the paraphernalia of television -- all present is quite another. Add an array of lights shining in your face and the process can be intimidating. We knew we had to make the experience as informal as possible.
Luckily, The Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg offered us some space, so we set up, surrounded by artifacts from the area's long association with the sea.
W5 cameraman Paul Freer kept the lights to a minimum, creating a moody, warm cocoon of soft lighting that made talking to Sandie Rinaldo seem more like a conversation for the students than a formal interview.
Each student had a slightly different take on their experience, particular moments that are seared in their memory.
For Mei Barry, it was the sight of her roommate falling into their cabin when the ship capsized and the door she was coming through suddenly became the roof. "That's when I knew something was wrong," she said. "And I had to get out."
For Stephen Vincelli, it was clinging to the edge of a desk, feeling his fingers slip, and falling 15 feet into water that was rapidly filling the cabin. "I fell straight down, cracked my head on the glass," he said. "Afterwards, I realized I spent the entire time with a concussion from the fall."
For Keaton Farwell, it was being sucked underwater and coming to terms with the realization she would probably drown. "I could see the sun from above the water," she said. "And I just remember thinking, okay, all right, this is where I'm going to die."
For Olivia Aftergood, it was thinking she might die in a life raft, adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. "It was so painful to think about it," she said. "Like, I'm not going to be here on this earth."
As the interviews progressed, Sandie Rinaldo gently led the students through the stories of the worst moments in their lives. Off camera, even with tasks to take care of, the rest of us were mesmerized by the images these students dredged from memory. No pictures, no sound, no recreation could portray it more effectively than the intensity of their words.
As they conjured up their memories, sometimes their faces took on a far away, haunted look. Surrounded by the models of sailing ships and other reminders of Lunenburg's nautical past, I had an odd feeling we weren't alone anymore. It was as if the ghosts of those who had gone down in ships from the town had gathered in the shadows and were quietly listening to these stories of present-day brushes with death.
A close call with mortality leaves its scars on anyone. It's still too early to say what long term effects the trauma of shipwreck will have on the students who sailed on Concordia.
Bill Curry, the ship's captain, compared the experience to passing through the eye of the needle. He said in a message that was read to the students on their graduation day in June, 2010, "No sane person wants to be squeezed through the impossibly small and frighteningly narrow slot that separates life from sudden death."
Each one of the 64 people -- students, teachers and crew -- on board Concordia that fateful day in February, 2010, passed through that eye in their own way. And all survived. As Curry said, "Now, we are our future selves and only we can decide exactly what it is that we're going to be."