The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Tragic story of the Titanic one of many to touch Atlantic Canadians

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HALIFAX - His was the fourth body pulled from the icy North Atlantic days after the Titanic sank in 1912.

Sidney Leslie Goodwin was only 19 months old when he died. The little English boy is buried in the north end of Halifax.

Though he wasn't the youngest Titanic passenger to perish, his story serves as a poignant reminder that in the weeks after the sinking, crews from four ships — most of them sailors from Halifax — volunteered to perform the grim task of recovering bodies left bobbing on the cold ocean.

History shows that the residents of Atlantic Canada have so often risen to the occasion at times of tragedy that their willingness to help others has become a threadbare cliche.

But like all cliches, this one contains a hard kernel of truth.

For more than a century before the Titanic disaster, the region suffered through countless shipwrecks, major fires, coal mining tragedies and all manner of natural disasters.

In early October 1853, for example, a fierce storm off the north coast of P.E.I. was blamed for sinking about 100 fishing schooners, claiming up to 400 lives. To this day, the Yankee Gale is considered the worst disaster in the Island's history.

On April 1, 1873 — almost 40 years before the Titanic foundered on its maiden voyage — another state-of-the-art White Star Line passenger ship, the SS Atlantic, went aground and sank just west of Halifax, taking more than 500 souls with her. It was one of the worst civilian maritime disasters of the 19th century. Close to 300 of the victims are buried in mass graves near Lower Prospect. N.S.

By the time the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912, residents of the Maritimes and Newfoundland were well acquainted with large-scale disasters, which helps explain why the people of Halifax worked tirelessly to recover the dead and comfort surviving relatives.

"The citizens of Halifax were so moved by it, and they came out in large numbers," says Paul Butler of St. John's, N.L., author of "Titanic's Ashes," a recently published fictional account of the aftermath of the ship's demise. "Being at the mercy of the ocean ... is central to people who have a maritime connection."

Published accounts from the time say the recovery of Titanic victims was physically and emotionally draining, particularly for those who found Goodwin, a fair-haired child whose entire family perished in the sinking.

"He came floating toward us with a little upturned face," John Snow Jr., an embalmer aboard the Mackay-Bennett, told the Halifax Herald after the telegraph-cable ship returned to port, having recovered 306 bodies — 116 of which were buried at sea because they were badly disfigured.

A total of 150 Titanic victims are buried in three Halifax graveyards, their bodies prepared by 40 embalmers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

It's hard to conceive that anything good could come from taking part in such gruesome tasks, but Bob Conrad thinks otherwise.

In September 1998, Conrad was among a group of Nova Scotia fishermen who joined the search for survivors after a Swissair passenger jet caught fire and crashed into St. Margarets Bay, west of Halifax.

None of the 229 people aboard survived, but Conrad didn't know that as he used a powerful light on his boat to scan a horrific debris field reeking of jet fuel and littered with ghastly array of shredded luggage, clothing and body parts.

At one point, he thought he spotted a child's doll. But as he drew closer, he realized the small figure was that of a toddler's naked body. Conrad recalls how he gently lifted the boy from the water and wrapped him in a blanket.

The fisherman would later learn the boy's name was Robert Martin Maillet. He was only 14 months old when he died along with his parents, Karen Domingue Maillet and Denis Maillet, both 37, of Baton Rouge, La. He was the youngest person on the plane.

Today, Conrad speaks in calm, even tones when describing what happened that moonless night.

"There's a tendency to think that it would be awful — and it is," says Conrad, now 65.

"But, from my experience, when the need to help another is critical, the element of danger and personal threat seems to be gone; it's not there. What would be horrid for your eyes to see, somehow is muted or blunted so that you can perform the task at hand. That was most amazing to me."

Conrad says he didn't think twice about heading out on the water that night. He says he's convinced that his deep desire to help those in need is shared by most people who live in small communities along Atlantic Canada's rugged coastline.

"Why we respond in such a giving, caring kind of way seems to be very deeply connected to the sense of community that we have achieved, unconsciously or otherwise, over the course of our lives" he says.

"Generally, we like where we live. We develop a very deep sense of place in that experience. ... Every society values this sense of community if they can discover it. Sometimes, big cities lose it. Individuals become invisible."

Butler says the reality of living on the East Coast has long meant struggling to survive and relying on others to get by.

"There's almost like an egalitarian ethos in this province (Newfoundland and Labrador) and probably in Nova Scotia. It's based upon this idea that you'll survive if you share and you work out how to survive as a community. The ethos is still there in the background, in terms of sharing and community values."

Blair Beed, a Halifax author and well-known Titanic sites tour guide, says Atlantic Canadians are not unique in their ability to reach out to others.

"When we had the Halifax Explosion in 1917, the people of Boston came rallying to us because of that friendship across the border," says Beed, author of "Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards."

"But we certainly have a long history of helping others," he says, noting that Halifax — founded in 1749 as a military base — has always been imbued by a sense of duty and loyalty.

As well, the geography of the Atlantic region has played an obvious role in shaping the Atlantic character, he says. Jutting into the North Atlantic, the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland are routinely in harm's way when the weather turns foul.

"In the early days, people were crashing into us just because they didn't have the technology to say we were there," says Beed, whose grandfather was an undertaker's assistant who helped process bodies recovered after Titanic's sinking.

"I grew up with the idea that my grandfather was one of those people who said, 'The job has to be done.' "

For fisherman Bob Conrad, who still lives in Fox Point, N.S., the motivation to help others comes from a profound place.

"For me, there is this reality for every human being: each of us wants our life to count for something. ... It's just that when you get in a disaster scenario, the opportunity to achieve that is thrust upon you," he says.

"There's something so meaningful in not living for yourself but living for others and in community."

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