October 2, 2019

April McCarthy walks down a gravel path in the cemetery in Tors Cove, a small community on Newfoundland’s Southern Shore, towards her husband's grave.

She picks at some of the weeds that have crept into the site, that's boxed in with a wooden frame, filled with white stones. Flowers and ornaments line the base of Chris McCarthy's black tombstone.

But his body is not buried here.

He was lost at sea when a small fishing vessel, called Sea Gypsy Enterprises, started taking on water and sank about 130 kilometres east of Cape Spear on Sept. 12, 2009. Three of the five crew members were rescued, and the body of the fourth fisherman was recovered from the scene.

Chris McCarthy was never found.

His wife didn't speak publicly at the time of the incident. But now, a decade later, she wanted to share what happened, as part of CBC Newfoundland and Labrador's series This Is My Story.

We interviewed April McCarthy in June, on a day that started out grey. By noon, the sun had broken free from the clouds. McCarthy smiled, and said it was as if her husband wanted the weather to be nice for her.

She then revealed that the random day that our crew happened to choose for this shoot was April and Chris's 20th wedding anniversary.

"What a great way to celebrate it," she said.

April McCarthy describes her journey in this video:

McCarthy exudes so much positivity for a person who has had to deal with so much sorrow: she became a widow at the age of 33, with three children, shortly after moving from their hometown of Trepassey to Tors Cove, a small community where she knew no one.

"We have on Chris's gravestone: 'Your love will always be our guide.' And it has been our guide throughout this," she said.

"He would have wanted me to have made that decision I made, that every day that I put my feet on the floor here, that I decide how my day is going to be. If I'm happy or not... It's a decision that you have to make about your life — especially when something like this happens.

"It's either: let it kill you, or let it make you, and grow you. And I wanted to grow from it as much as I could."

Sept. 12, 2009

It was a Saturday morning, and the Sea Gypsy was heading in with a full load of shrimp. Around 11 a.m., the boat started to slow. It was taking on water.

One of the fishermen notified the skipper that the vessel was sinking, and urged the crew to put on immersion suits.

According to a Transportation Safety Board of Canada report, most of the crew abandoned ship, jumping into the Atlantic Ocean. The skipper managed to get into a life-raft.

The report said two Cormorant helicopters were tasked from Gander, in central Newfoundland, and two Hercules aircraft from Greenwood, N.S., as well as two commercial aircraft.

It was one of the latter that arrived first on the scene, close to 12 p.m. Three hours later, one of the helicopters had rescued three of the men, who were suffering from mild hypothermia, and recovered the body of the fourth.

The RCMP told CBC News at the time that the missing crew member became separated from the others due to high waves and wind.

Chris McCarthy was nowhere to be found.

April McCarthy remembers that day vividly.

She and the kids were at an end-of-year party for the local soccer organization.

"It was a beautiful, sunny day. Like, you can't imagine something bad happening on a day like that," she said.

"And you just get that call — that call that changes your life forever."

Her nine-year-old son was waiting for his turn on the bouncy castle.

"I had to say to him, 'Ben, there's something wrong... Your dad's boat sank. We got to go.'"

McCarthy said she doesn't remember the drive home, only what happened when she got through the front door.

"I remember coming in and realizing it was over — that the life that we knew was over," she said.

"I was on my knees on the floor, and my son Ben was putting his arms around my neck, and he was crying. And we were just holding each other, and that's what we were saying, it was over."

'I knew he wasn't coming home'

While the search continued for her husband at sea, McCarthy said she already knew he wasn't alive.

"Chris was the type of person — he was in excellent physical shape," she said.

"When the news came and he wasn't the first person off the boat, I knew he wasn't coming home."

The search efforts concluded on Monday night — Sept. 14, 2009.

"That was the hard part, was telling the children," McCarthy said.

"I took them each individually and told them that their dad wasn't coming back."

Their youngest, Lily, had just turned six.

"I said, 'You know, honey... your daddy is not coming home.' And she said, 'I know Mom... He wasn't a survivor,'" McCarthy recalled.

"And I looked at her, and she was playing with her Barbies, kneeling on the edge of the bed, and I was like, 'What does that mean?' And she said, 'It means that he didn't make it. He's gone to heaven.'"

McCarthy said her survival instincts kicked in then, because she knew her kids couldn't lose both their dad and their mom that day.

"I completely focused on the children... They had to be OK, and the rest of it was out of my control," she said.

"They had a traumatic loss to their innocence at such an early age, and I had to be there for them... Because I needed them to know that the world wasn't a scary place and they were going to be fine in it."

'Would the outcome have been different?'

When McCarthy was being told what had happened that day at sea, she said she was so angry and upset that she was shaking.

"The response time was the big factor," McCarthy recalled.

"And if there had to have been obviously a helicopter in St. John's, they would have gotten there a lot faster. Would the outcome have been different? We'll never know. I will never know."

There were also issues identified with an unsecured hatch, and questions about the need for more alarms in compartments to warn crews when boats take on water.

But in the end, McCarthy said she didn't hold onto any anger or resentment towards anyone.

"What happened, happened. And if you live with regret and bitterness and anger about it, then there's going to be no room for all the other things that I wanted in my life: happiness and joy and pleasure and love," she said.

"So you just have to decide what's more important. Pointing fingers was never important to me."

Forced to stop, and to reflect

After the sinking, McCarthy began meeting more people from the community when she became a fitness instructor and personal trainer — something she calls her "absolute passion in life."

"Lifting weights for me was like a moving meditation... I could be absolutely focused on that. And that was my survival tool," she said.

But after years of stress and physical activity, McCarthy said, one day, her body just said 'enough is enough,' and in late 2017, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

"It forced me to stop," she said.

"I had been basically, not running away from what happened, but moving [forward] all the time... And then I realized... I needed to stop right now and just look back at where I've been, where I've come from, and honour actually myself and how I had gotten through those... years without Chris."

She said slowing down was difficult, but necessary. McCarthy has since been able to control her pain, and is currently working to get back to a point where she can teach fitness again.

In the meantime, she is spending a lot of time hiking on the East Coast Trail.

"I love to be in nature. It centres you, it calms you. It feeds back to you this peacefulness, so that, if you're struggling inwardly, that it helps you heal," she said.

"When I'm by the water, I also feel so connected to Chris. I know that's where he's to... That's what he loved to do. That's where he is."

A support for others

McCarthy said when she started teaching fitness, there were some people who were more interested in confiding in her than working out.

"I learned early on that grief is a very lonely place. And I knew that other people felt that too, and I didn't want people to feel alone," she said.

She later became involved with Threads of Life, an organization that supports families who have been affected by a workplace fatality, life-altering injury or occupational disease.

The CBC's Paula Gale shares more details about April's journey:

In January, the organization trained McCarthy in Toronto to become a volunteer family guide.

"[It's] someone who has been through what you've been through," she said.

"You're there to listen, and to offer support and to just hold space for them so that they can feel safe saying, 'I broke down in my car yesterday, and I didn't feel like I could get out of bed this morning.' And [for] someone to say, 'You know what? I felt like that sometimes too… [And] it will get better.'"

But for McCarthy, Threads of Life wasn't just about spreading support outwards — it also turned the spotlight on herself.

"The facilitator said to me... ‘You focused the past 10 years on the kids... Now, you need to focus some time on yourself,'" McCarthy said.

"I was very emotional when I came back home from it. I thought to myself, 'Wow, how did I do that? ... And what do I do next?'"

Now, McCarthy has gone back to school, and she's finishing a book.

"I'm writing about what happened to us — not concentrating on the accident, but concentrating on our journey, where we got to a place from grief to gratitude," she said.

"And I can honestly say I'm in that place. Where even though we experienced something life-altering, there was so much to be grateful for...

"The amount of people that I have met, that have taught me so much in life, and I hopefully have taught them too, and connected with, that I would never have met other than this experience."

Remembering Chris

April and Chris were best friends who were together for 15 years. Thinking back on those memories brings a smile to McCarthy’s face.

"When we met, he was kind of shy. So he was like the yin to my yang, because I'm really outgoing," she said.

"And he liked to joke around. He had this sly little grin."

McCarthy recalls the last time she saw her husband, a week before the accident.

Chris was usually away for his birthday, she said — but for some reason, that year, he happened to be home.

So on Sept. 6, 2009, they had a celebration for him.

"I had made a lemon cake...There were lemon slices and everything on it," she said with a smile.

"The kids were so delighted, and we gave him his gifts."

The following day, he was getting ready to head out on the boat, and McCarthy was about to leave for a school meeting.

"He walked out to the car with me, and he opened the door and hugged me... And that was the last time I ever saw him," she said.

"And I remember the last thing he said to me was, 'I love you, babe.'"

'Life without him hasn’t been the same'

McCarthy said she and her family will always cherish their memories of Chris.

"Me and my kids talk about him all the time: 'What would your dad say about this? What would your dad think? [Or] you know, Dad would love this,'" she said.

"Looking back, yes, it was incredibly difficult. There were times where I was like, 'How am I going to do it without you, Chris?'

“But now, I realize that he was there beside us all the time. His love and courage that I knew he had at those last moments, and how he must have felt leaving us, just propelled us to keep going — and propelled me to keep being strong...

"And I know that he sees us, and he's so happy, and he's so proud."

This Is My Story

This Is My Story is a special series from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, where we check back with people who have overcome some tremendous struggles in their lives.

Explore previous stories from this series: