Lieutenant Jack Barrett was just coming off leave in March 2009 when he got a call from Pastor Edison Wiltshire, the head of Ezra Chaplaincy Services (Baptist) in Newfoundland. Carrying offshore oil workers to the Hibernia oil field off the coast of Newfoundland, Cougar Helicopters Flight 91 had crashed, killing 17 of 18 on board. Could Barrett, a 14-year veteran of the navy, travel to the Hibernia rig and help the traumatized young workers deal with the tragedy and their fears?
The Newfoundland native, who studied at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, got clearance from his admiral within two hours and was soon making the 24-hour, 180-nautical-mile journey to the enormous platform, which one of the oil workers described as the “highest maximum security prison in the world.”
Says Padre Barrett: “You leave by helicopter or you leave by boat. You don’t walk away.” Many of the workers suffer from a sense of being trapped and isolated. But isolation is something military chaplains address, he adds, because they’re used to spending long deployments on ships at sea.
Hoisted up 20 storeys in a bucket over rough seas, Barrett began his seven-day ministry on the gigantic oil platform-the world’s largest-a ministry dedicated to helping the 200 or so mostly young workers confront their fears and come to terms with the hazards of offshore drilling.
“Though they were fairly young, they were all concerned about their own mortality and the risk to their own lives after the helicopter crash,” Barrett says. “They wondered if they could continue working in that environment, though it is a very well paid industrial job and some make six figures.” In fact, the crash prompted more than a few workers to leave the rig, never to return.
Why a military chaplain to tend to a civilian workforce? Military chaplains work well in industrialized settings where, as in the military, the workforce may not have strong formal religious affiliations but still has spiritual concerns. Being a seasoned sailor of the high seas didn’t hurt either, considering Hibernia’s North Atlantic location.
Padre Barrett toured the rig, unobtrusively visiting staff at their various work stations, always ready to talk, in a supportive ministry of presence. He also had a cabin-cum-office in which people could speak with him privately.
The highlight of the week at Hibernia was the memorial service he conducted in the main dining hall, which was attended by 80 per cent of the crew and broadcast via marine radio to the entire fleet of supply vessels. Pastor Wiltshire conducted a counterpart onshore memorial in a nationally broadcast multi-faith
service at the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s.
Would Barrett go back to the forbidding platform if called? “In a heartbeat. I felt very comfortable out there,” he says.