BROCKVILLE, Ontario -- The sole living survivor of the J.B. King explosion believes that while divers should still be llowed access to the wreck, the site should be protected and recognized as a gravesite.
Now 94, Captain Ev Snider was one of 11 people to survive the drillboat explosion in June 1930. Although dive sites in the Brockville area of the St. Lawrence River are not affected by a new provincial regulation designed to protect three shipwrecks in Lake Ontario and Lake Superior, he believes that visitors to the site should be made aware that that the J.B. King is the resting place of 13 to 17 men.
Thirty men died when the drillboat was struck by lightning and exploded more than 75 years ago, and the bodies of more than 13 men were never recovered, he said.
"They never found them. They might have been blown to bits, I don't know," Snider said.
Still, he wouldn't want the J.B. King to be declared off limits to divers without a special permit from the province like the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior and the Hamilton and the Scourge in Lake Ontario.
The J.B. King is positioned off the northwest corner of Cockburn Island, in the Brockville Narrows, about 125 feet underwater.
"Diving and viewing the shipwrecks has become quite a business around here," said Snider. "It's quite a thing for divers to come to the area and it's a source of revenue for the area. I wouldn't like to see people banned from the wrecks.
"My view is that if they can see (the site) and not touch it, then its OK," said Snider. "But you would need the assurance that they wouldn't touch anything and it's very hard to police.
"As long as they leave it intact (it's OK)," he said. "People are always after getting souvenirs and it takes away from the wrecks."
Snider said he was told that the steering wheel from a little workboat he was running had been removed from the wreck site.
Although it doesn't bother him to hear about divers going down to explore the sunken drillboat, people should remember that the J.B. King is a gravesite and treat it with respect, Snider said.
Other Brockville residents agreed with Snider.
"Perhaps the wreck site should be treated with the same reverence as that shown to the Edmund Fitzgerald," said Brockville resident Geoff Chittenden in an interview with the Recorder and Times.
In a letter to the newspaper, Chittenden wrote that "underwater explorations in this area a few years ago were not as respectful of wrecks as evidenced by the ancient anchors which sometimes graced rural lawns. Can anyone believe that pillaging is not continuing, albeit in a scaled-down and furtive way?"
Chittenden, who moved to Brockville in 1952, said that he's always had an interest in the river and in preserving its accessibility.
But he's all for making the J.B. King off limits.
"I understand it's a very dangerous dive anyway," Chittenden said. "I'm quite aware of the number of people who have died on dives. I don't think there should be any more diving on that wreck because it's dangerous."
Danger aside, the site should be off limits to divers because "30 people died on the wreck," Chittenden said.
"It was an explosion. I don't think they have the facilities to recover all the bodies," he said. "Some of the bodies may have drifted away. In an explosion like that, some of the bodies may not be entirely intact."
Brockville resident Deborah Dunleavy is all for making the J.B. King a protected heritage site.
"Leave the site alone, that's where I'm at," said Dunleavy, whose grandfather on her mother's side, Jack Wylie, died in the J.B. King disaster.
"She was always very upset about it," Dunleavy said of her mother.
Dunleavy's mother, Ernestine Dunleavy, was eight years old and the eldest of three of the family's children when her father died. Wylie's body was never recovered.
"He was one of the lost souls," Dunleavy said. "(My mother) was always very upset about the notion of divers going down there for any reason. I'm all for scuba diving in the region, and I think it's a great tourism package we can promote for the Thousand Islands, but I would honour my mother's sentiments, which is to leave the site alone. That's where I'm at," she said.
The regulation for the three shipwrecks came after relatives of the mariners who died on the ships fought for more than a decade to protect and respect the wrecks as gravesites.
Located northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, the Edmund Fitzgerald is the grave site of 29 crew members who died when the ship sank during a storm on November 10, 1975. The Hamilton and the Scourge, both located north of Port Dalhousie in Lake Ontario, were U.S. merchant schooners which served during the war of 1812. The ships sank in August 1813, killing 53 of the 72 crew members aboard.
Regardless of whether the provincial regulation will affect the J.B. King in the future, people should be careful when diving at that wreck, Snider said.
"It's deep water and it's dangerous," he said.
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