A Ridgetown, Ont. woman says she may have seen the distress flares fired by missing sailor Reginald Fisher the night he vanished, but when she reported it to the Canadian Coast Guard, she says she wasn’t taken seriously.
The Dutton man went missing on Thursday Sept. 17, after he didn’t return from a sailing trip on Lake Erie. Ontario Provincial Police recovered Fisher’s abandoned sailboat the next day, but saw no sign of the 77-year-old.
On Tuesday, Const. Troy Carlson of the OPP Marine Unit said the effort to rescue the missing sailor had become a recovery effort as police continue to search for the man’s body.
Rosemary Mitton, who owns a cottage on the north shore of Lake Erie not far from Rondeau Provincial Park, said she may have seen Fisher’s flares the night he disappeared.
“It was a clear night. The lake was flat. It was really easy to tell that was a flare,” she said. “Our son Charlie’s cottage is just a few doors down from our own.”
“We both saw another one. I had him on the phone.”
He just kept saying, ‘that’s ours.’
The 66-year-old quickly went back into the house to find the 1-800 number for the Canadian Coast Guard to report what she saw.
“I called and I got a man with a French-Canadian accent,” Mitton said. “I told him ‘Lake Erie, north shore of Lake Erie and just east of Rondeau and just beyond the point at Clearville,’ because we don’t see beyond the point at Clearville because of the curvature of the Earth. It was well within this side of the horizon.”
“He asked me what colour the flare was and I told him it was the colour of fire and he said ‘that’s ours.'”
At the same time as Mitton was calling in her sighting, there was a Canadian Coast Guard rescue operation happening, somewhere on the water between Port Bruce and Port Burwell, Ont.
The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ont. said it received word that a boat was in distress and taking on water near Port Burwell, Ont. A CC-130 Hercules aircraft was launched in order to provide illumination support by dropping parachute flares in the area Thursday night. A Coast Guard vessel then escorted the limping ship back to Port Burwell, where all occupants managed to return to shore safely.
But Reginald Fisher never did.
“I think what it was was a sad coincidence that we had a person in distress sending up flares and they had somebody in Port Burwell that they were dropping to,” Mitton said.
“Two sets of flares on the same night on a calm lake. It would be highly unusual.”
Mitton believes she may have seen his distress signal rising above the dark water of Lake Erie, somewhere west of the point at Clearville, an eight-minute drive from Port Glasgow, where OPP said Fisher set off on his doomed voyage earlier that day.
That night, as she spoke to a coast guard official on the phone, Mitton says she kept insisting she knew what she saw, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t seem to take it seriously.
“I told him we don’t see Port Burwell and the flares weren’t being dropped, they were going up,” she said. “He assured me they were there. He just kept saying, ‘That’s ours.'”
Flares from multiple locations
“He was a very, very friendly man and we had a very, very friendly conversation. I felt a little bit stupid. I know where I live and we never see Port Burwell, it’s 80 miles away.”
“I don’t understand why the dispatcher, the person who was in the office that night, wouldn’t have simply looked at a chart.”
The OPP told CBC News Tuesday that Mitton wasn’t the only person who reported flares that night.
“We did have multiple reports of flares from multiple locations up and down the northern shore of Lake Eire,” said Const. Troy Carlson, noting that if the flares were Reginald Fisher, he would have fired them off at almost the same time the Coast Guard and the military was conducting the other rescue near Port Burwell.
Carlson said the likelihood of two separate distress calls on the same calm, clear night out on Lake Erie is “extremely rare.”
Major Trevor Reid, a spokesman for the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ont. said the military received those same reports that night.
“During [the Port Burwell rescue], Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Trenton received reports advising them of flares being seen in the sky. Based on the time of reporting and the description of the flares, it was determined that these flares were those being dropped by the RCAF Hercules,” Reid wrote in an email.
Mitton said the Coast Guard official who answered the phone eventually convinced her she was worrying about nothing. She went to bed that night reassuring herself that whoever was out there would probably be fine until morning because the water was so calm and the skies were clear.
“Lake Erie is well named. It can change in a minute,” she said. “The wind really picked up in the night, the lake got wild, I didn’t sleep. I was just pacing and there were no more flares.”
“By morning the Hercules [aircraft] started going over and we knew we lost somebody,” she said. “I really felt sick. I mean physically ill.”
The incident raises a number of questions, such as what really happened to Reginald Fisher and why didn’t the military look more thoroughly into what Mitton was telling them. When she thinks about it, the idea of a call for help going unanswered leaves her cold.
‘It send shivers up and down our spines’
“It sends shivers up and down our spines because it could have been us. Anybody, one of our friends’ kids; whatever. We have lost neighbours kids on the lake and we have incredible respect for the water because of that.”
Fisher, 77, was described as adventurous, athletic and an avid dancer who was popular with the ladies.
Those who knew the Dutton man said he was a regular at the Sarnia Navy Club before the pandemic and was often there on weekends playing pool and wearing his signature cowboy hat.
“He was very sweet, caring,” said club president Cindy Vandenberghe. “Danced with every lady he could.”
“We called him ‘spider legs’ because you never knew where his legs would go,” she said. “It’s very upsetting. He will be missed.”