By Marcela Canavarro, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – The ordeal of the Canadian ‘Class Afloat’ on board the SV Concordia has ended well with all 64 passengers safe and on land. The tall ship from Nova Scotia sank off the coast of the state of Rio de Janeiro, near Cabo Frio, on the night of Wednesday, February 17th. The 48 students and sixteen teachers and crew members stayed on rafts at sea for approximately forty hours until two merchant ships rescued them.
The Captain William Curry attributed the accident to a micro-burst phenomenon, which is a sudden burst of vertical wind with tornado-like force. During a press conference at a Brazilian Naval base in Rio de Janeiro Captain Curry stated that micro-bursts are impossible to predict although they are not that rare.
“It would be just one more day at the ocean. The kids are the heroes here. Everyone did it remarkably well. There was no panic and we got everyone into the rafts in a pretty short order. I was incredibly relieved when I counted 64,” said Captain Curry to the press.
The Brazilian Air Force received the distress signal from the ship on the morning of Thursday, February 18th, and started a flying search in the area. It was about 5PM when they located the rafts and communicated with the Navy to co-ordinate the rescue. The Brazilian Navy then contacted the closest ships to head towards the rafts.
“We first got rescued by a Filipino boat. They were amazing. They were so great to us. They got us food right away and gave us dry clothes. They were just so helpful – the greatest people in the world,” said sixteen year old student Sarah Fennessey just after getting her feet on dry land. “I don’t even know who I am right now. I just want to go home”.
When the first twelve students landed in Rio on Saturday morning, they were relieved to be on land once again. Four of them talked to the press and pointed out Second Mate Rob MacDonald as the key person who kept them calm while at sea. MacDonald has only been working for the “Class Afloat” program for two months.
“We were just thinking the worst. We thought our signal had failed and nobody knew. It could be weeks before we got saved. Just the worst death thoughts were going through our heads. We were all in panic. Our second mate Rob was the only reason I personally stayed sane. We were thinking the absolute worst, that we were going to starve and die”, said sixteen year old Canadian student Keaton Farwell.
All 42 Canadian citizens left Rio on the afternoon of Sunday the 21st. It was a long journey back home beginning with a bus to Sao Paulo and then a flight to Toronto where they landed early in the morning of Monday the 22nd. Some of them took connections to their respective cities. The other 22 on board the vessel were from eight different nationalities and headed home as soon as they could.
The bus departure was marked by emotional hugs and cries. The students were sorry to be saying farewell to their friends from various nationalities who stayed in the hotel waiting for their turn to leave. A psychologist specialising in post-traumatic situations was provided by West Island College International, who offer the “Class Afloat” program.
The college also sent new clothes for the students to travel home in, while the Brazilian Navy also donated boxes of shoes and clothing – most of the kids entered the bus wearing brand new Brazilian flip-flops.
The Brazilian Federal Police provided new IDs on Saturday night shortly after they all returned from the Navy base.
“We are extremely grateful to the Brazilian authorities and the Brazilian Navy for an extraordinary support in the last few days,” stated the Canadian Ambassador in Brazil Paul Hunt.
A few parents that had flown to Rio de Janeiro to greet their children were outside the hotel on Sunday. Anthony Turner recounted how the first contact with his daughter Nicole was: “She was crying and very emotional. When I finally met her she was perfect. We’ll have a big party with all friends and family when she gets back home”.
The parents’ feelings were a mix of delight and shock. “The lesson I’ve got from this situation is that I’m really proud of my daughter. This situation changed those kids in many ways – but all in a good way”, said Edward Palonek, who flew from Panama to Rio de Janeiro to see his sixteen year old daughter Samantha.