03/30/2014 01:00 EDT | Updated 05/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Newfoundland marks 1914 sealing disaster with father and son's frozen embrace

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Reuben Crewe vowed he'd never go sealing again after the steamer Harlaw was crushed in ice, forcing all hands to flee over drifting floes to St. Paul's Island near Cape Breton.

It was a harrowing, freezing ordeal but Crewe survived.

That was three years before his 16-year-old son, Albert John, came home breathless in the tiny outport of Elliston on Newfoundland's east coast in March 1914. The boy had landed a coveted berth on the sealing vessel SS Newfoundland. And when he could not be talked out of this rare chance to earn some money for the rest of the fishing season, Reuben went along to protect his son.

They were later found frozen together on an ice pan. The boy's head was tucked against his father's chest as they died in a fierce storm stranded miles from their ship.

Their embrace will be depicted in a bronze sculpture as part of ceremonies to be held Monday and later this spring marking 100 years since the Newfoundland sealing disaster.

A tragic lack of communication between ships — the SS Newfoundland had no wireless device — contributed to the deaths of 77 men as two captains each assumed the 132 lost sealers were safe on the other's vessel. Another man would later die in hospital.

Many of those who survived were maimed by frostbite, losing fingers and toes.

The same storm also claimed the SS Southern Cross which sank with 176 including stowaways on board, according to the most recent research.

In all, 254 men died.

Doreen Mercer, whose great-grandfather was Reuben Crewe, said it's important to remember how hundreds more men died over the years in other accidents and shipwrecks.

"There were so many more sealers that were lost," she said in an interview. "It was truly, truly hard."

She recalled hearing from an aunt how her great-grandmother, Mary, awoke in the night to a vision as the men were caught out on the ice in 1914.

"Reuben and her son Albert John were kneeled down at the side of her bed and Reuben was with his hands in prayer. There was such a peaceful look on his face. Albert John had his head bowed too. And it was so clear to her that she could even see the stitching on their jackets."

News soon reached Elliston, home to eight of the dead sealers. Mercer said her great-grandmother was expecting the dreaded visit that confirmed the worst.

"When she opened the door she said: 'I know. They're gone.'"

The twin calamities devastated fishing outports up and down the coast, said Eric Goodland, a Catalina, N.L., resident who grew up in Elliston. His grandfather, John Goodland, joined searchers on the rescue ship Bellaventure that gathered the bodies for return to St. John's on April 4, 1914, as thousands of mourners crowded the waterfront.

John Goodland recognized his son Alexander's frozen corpse from the way he always rolled his pant legs between the ankle and knee.

"That was very traumatic for him," said Eric Goodland. Sealing was dangerous and often deadly, but it gave many fishing families a bit of crucial money and is a proud part of the province's heritage, he added.

It was relentless work if the hunt was good, and could wind up costing sealers if the hunt was poor.

"The hardships they endured were compounded by the greed of the shipowners, who refused to provide clothing or safety equipment," wrote Cassie Brown in her book "Death on the Ice."

"The men had no meals to cook or any way to cook them: for weeks and months they lived on sea biscuit and tea. Even their drinking water was polluted with blood and seal fat until it stank. They slept like cattle in ships' holds without bedding.

"As the pelts and fat piled up, they simply lived on top of the cargo in utter filth."

Myrtle Stagg of the Elliston Heritage Foundation said the community has worked since 2008 to raise funds for a sealers' memorial to be unveiled June 19. It will include the sculpture of Reuben and Albert John Crewe, an interpretation centre and a memorial wall engraved with the names of those aboard the Newfoundland and the Southern Cross.

"They contributed to our history," she said. "They helped settle us. They helped sustain us, and their contribution needs to be remembered.

"I think it's very important for future generations to really know that story."