A retired couple that lives on the north shore of Lake Erie says they called the OPP’s 911 dispatch four times to report distress flares the night Reginald Fisher’s sailboat capsized, and each time, they were dismissed by the operator, who didn’t send anyone to investigate.
It is the second time area residents have come forward describing seeing multiple flares the night the sailor went missing, saying the authorities did not respond to their calls.
Fisher’s body washed up on the shore Oct. 2, more than two weeks after he went missing.
Ron and Jackie Fordham are the most recent witnesses to what they believe were Fisher’s last calls for help. They were enjoying a quiet evening at their lakeside home when Ron spotted what he thought might be the glow of flames on the horizon.
“I saw what appeared to be a boat on fire,” he said. “I immediately went and got my wife, Jackie.”
The Fordhams called 911 and were told by the operator that what they were seeing was a rescue going on in the Port Bruce area.
“We left it at that. Then 10 minutes later we saw another flare. A hand-held flare. It glowed up the night.”
‘No! You’re not listening to me!’
They called 911 again and got the same response. Over the next 90 minutes, Fordham said he and his wife saw another four flares go off in the air.
“I called again. This time quite frantic and it was like I was getting blown off again.”
Fordham did his best to explain that from their vantage point, the couple couldn’t see Port Bruce, which is 75 kilometres away from their house as the crow flies. They say it would be mathematically impossible to see that far from where they live.
What’s more, the couple says the dispatcher should have figured out, based on the time of their calls, that they were not talking about the coast guard rescue off Port Bruce.
“During our conversation with the 911 operator, she eventually said that the men had been saved and I’m going, ‘No! You’re not listening to me! There’s another boat out here that’s in peril.'”
The Fordhams say they are certain it was another boat because they know, based on the positions of the windmills on top of the bluffs near Clearville, roughly how far away the flares were coming from.
‘I begged 911 to please send someone out’
“The reason we knew that is the windmills light up at night and the last windmill is right on the Chatham-Kent-Elgin line,” said Jackie Fordham.
The Fordhams also told the OPP dispatcher that they own a 29-foot, twin-engine watercraft with a boat launch right on their beachfront property and that the vessel was at their disposal should they need any assistance.
“My husband had told them that if they needed his boat, if they could illuminate the boat in distress, we could get our boat out and possibly help.”
WATCH | Jackie Fordham describes her last 911 call:
The Fordhams tried to be patient, but when the last flare fizzled out on the horizon, so did their belief that the authorities were taking their calls seriously.
Jackie Fordham made the fourth and final call to 911 at 11:46 p.m. This time, her anxiety over someone potentially being in danger on the lake was laid bare.
“I begged 911 to please send someone out,” she said through tears. “We needed someone to help us. We could get our vessel out and save the boater and they continued to tell us it was the boat in Port Bruce.”
“I was frantic. I yelled. I said we cannot see Port Bruce from where we live. We needed help,” Jackie said describing that last call.
The next morning, the couple said they saw the Hercules and the OPP helicopters. Reginald Fisher was missing for more than two weeks before a jogger found his body on the beach in the Port Burwell area.
“We feel horrible. We could have saved him,” Jackie Fordham said.
Last month, Rosemary Mitton, a Ridgetown resident living on the north shore of Lake Erie, west of the Fordhams, also reported seeing distress flares coming from the lake at the same time near Clearville the night Fisher vanished.
She was told by military officials with the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., that what she was seeing must have been the other rescue. Except the military told her that it was a rescue in progress about 90 kilometres away, near Port Burwell.
Authorities ‘not willing to speculate’ about what the Fordhams saw
Maj. Trevor Reid, a Royal Canadian Air Force spokesperson, told CBC News last Friday that the Canadian Armed Forces is not “willing to speculate” about what either the Fordhams or Mitton saw that night.
“Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre [JRCC] Trenton takes all sightings and reports seriously and investigates per our standard operating procedures,” he wrote in an email to CBC News on Monday.
“While we cannot speak to internal reporting and relaying processes of our partner agencies in search and rescue, once made aware of an emergency or potential emergency, JRCC Trenton responds as appropriate.”
Reid wrote that the JRCC wasn’t aware that the 77-year-old Fisher was missing, or that someone had reported flares to the OPP, until Sept. 18, the day after Fisher set sail on his doomed voyage.
The OPP said it received multiple reports of distress flares on the night Fisher went missing all along the north shore of Lake Erie.
Staff Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, an OPP spokesperson, said Sunday in an email to CBC News that the four calls made by the Fordhams were not dismissed and that the police service is currently reviewing what happened that night to improve its process.
“None of the information was ignored, we are currently reviewing the circumstances as to how the information was actioned to determine if there are any recommendations to improve the process.
“It is extremely unusual to have two nearly identical marine incidents in such close time and proximity to one another.”
Still, the Fordhams said while they don’t blame anyone in particular, they can’t understand why after four calls to 911, a police officer didn’t show up at their door.
“Drive up here. Take a look at what we’re seeing, don’t just ignore our calls,” Jackie Fordham said.
She said the OPP did follow up by sending an officer to visit them at their lakefront home, but it wasn’t until a number of days after Fisher vanished.
“We were upset and when he came in he said that we had every right to be pissed off.”