A documentary that takes viewers beneath the St. Lawrence River to a wreck at the bottom the Brockville Narrows is shining new light on a tragic chapter in the history of the Thousand Islands.
H2O Secrets J.B. King follows the remarkable story of the explosion of a dynamite-laden drill boat called the J.B. King, which was struck by lightning on June 26 1930. Thirty of the 42 crew members on board that day were killed. Seventeen of them were never found.
The documentary – which shows underwater footage of the remains of the barge – also puts a poignant spotlight on the sole living survivor of the disaster – Captain Everett Snider.
Snider, 97, received a standing ovation from the audience when he entered the movie theatre flanked by filmmaker Nathalie Lasselin and his family for the screening of the documentary in Brockville on April 29.
“I thought it was amazing,” said his son, Don Snider, of the emotional screening of the film which was also attended by some relatives of those who died in the disaster. “It pretty much brought tears to your eyes.”
His father’s story first captivated Lasselin two years ago when she came across a newspaper article about the J.B. King wreck in which Snider spoke out against divers stealing the wheel from the small workboat he’d been operating on the day of the deadly disaster.
His message struck a chord with the Montreal filmmaker and experienced scuba diver who had just completed filming on cave diving in Florida and was looking for a new project for her company, Pixnat.
“I’m really against stealing artifacts,” she said in an interview. “As a diver, I consider myself a privileged witness of what is happening under water. This is an underwater gravesite.”
Lasselin knew from the beginning one of the most endearing and in some ways enduring stories of the J.B. King was that of the wreck’s last sole survivor. So within two days of reading the article she picked up the phone and arranged to meet Captain Everett Snider at his Brockville home to talk about the tragedy.
Any qualms she had about her elderly subject’s faculties were quickly put to rest when the bespectacled Snider opened the door to his home to greet her for the first time.
“You’re 15 minutes late,” he said before inviting her inside to sift through carefully arranged stacks of newspaper clippings and photographs of the J.B. King.
And so Snider became a somewhat unlikely leading man in the documentary that had its world premiere at an underwater film festival in Cyprus and has been screened in New York, Montreal and Boston.
As Lasselin herself asked the audience at Brockville’s Galaxy Cinema in a brief introduction to the film: “How often do you fall in love with a 98-year-old man?”
The answer follows the filmmaker and the wreck’s only living survivor on a journey to tell the story of the J. B. King.
Snider, a young crew member aboard the J.B. King at the time of the blast, brought back memories for Lasselin from that night 79 years ago. She went to the bottom of the river and retrieved images of the barge as it is today.
“One of my best memories was actually out of the water when I showed Ev Snider the pictures of his boat underwater,” she wrote later of the experience. “It was like making it alive again.”
It was no easy task. The remains of the J.B. King lie on the bottom of the river off the northwest corner of Cockburn Island near Brockville. The wreck is considered a technical dive and Lasselin, though a diver with 10 years experience, had to train for more than 100 hours to be certified to make the descent to the site. She had to use a rebreather, a device that recycles a diver’s oxygen so they can stay underwater longer to get to the secrets of the J.B. King.
Lasselin runs her production company Pixnat from her home base of Montreal. Her team of three divers explored the site of the wreckage, which sits about 150 feet under the river’s surface and directly below the busy shipping lane.
The footage takes viewers to the barge’s final resting place – now a graveyard to the 17 bodies never recovered.
The 140-foot wooden drill boat - the largest drill boat of the time in Canada - was drilling and blasting to deepen the Narrows when the dynamite-laden vessel was struck by lightning and exploded.
“It’s really just a pile of debris,” said Lasselin. “There was nothing much written about what happened down there. There was not a lot of information about it. I’m always surprised how we’re losing our history.”
Snider, who would go on to make his livelihood on the very stretch of river that claimed the J.B. King as a tour boat operator, is a survivor in more than one sense of the word.
Closing in on his 98th birthday in July, he just renewed his driver’s license. He sings in several choirs including one that entertains residents at seniors’ homes. He is a widower and still lives alone in a bungalow on a tree-lined street near the water not far from the site of the J.B. King wreck.
His only son, Don, 62, said his father’s life story traces back to the river long before the J.B. King.
He recalls the story of the senior Snider and his brother being pulled in a sleigh across the frozen ice with his father, Wilfred Snider, when he was a young boy to leave the U.S. after his parents divorced. His father established Thousand Island Boat Tours, a popular tour boat company in Brockville.
For years, he steered guided tours of the Thousand Islands past the very spot of the wreck.
Known as “the Captain” or “Ev,” he was a fixture on the river. In recent years, he presented slideshows with historic photographs of the river. “He’s always on the go,” said his son, Don.
“He was lucky to survive,” said Lasselin.
A 28-year-old “oiler” named Jack Wylie of Brockville who was on the J.B. King the same night lightning struck was among those killed.
“He was one of the lost souls of the J.B. King,” said Deborah Dunleavy, who never got to meet her maternal grandfather who died in the blast when her mother Ernestine Dunleavy was just eight years old. His body was never recovered.
Ironically, the World War I veteran had survived a near-drowning as a crew member on the J.B. King that made national headlines a year earlier in Brockville. That’s when his German Shepherd, named King, dived in after Wylie after two other crew members who fell off the barge and through the ice into the frigid St. Lawrence River and pulled him to safety. Both Wylie and King were killed in the blast.
Dunleavy, a storyteller and author of children’s books who lives in Brockville, said the film is a touching tribute to her grandfather and the other men who lost their lives that day.
“My mother always told us that story,” said Dunleavy, who has photographs of her grandfather, King and newspapers from the days following the disaster.
The film also documents the pilgrimage by Stanko Paolic, a Croatian man whose grandfather and great-uncle were among those killed in the explosion, to the King memorial on Cockburn Island last summer.
Tragedy has revisited the site of the J.B. King since the explosion in 1930.
H2O Secrets J.B. King also features Dive Brockville Adventure Centre’s owner Helen Cooper, who lost her husband in a diving accident at the site in 2000.
“For me, everything down there is interconnected,” said Lasselin.
The film’s crew – with Snider looking on – helped place a commemorative stone at the bottom of the river to mark the site. Lasselin hopes the film will renew interest in the history of the J.B. King for divers and non-divers alike as it marks its 80th anniversary next year. But she credits the wreck’s sole survivor - with keeping the story alive with him all these years he has spent on the St. Lawrence.
“The river was part of his life,” she said of Snider. “You couldn’t portray his life without the river. He’s part of the river and the river is part of him.”
By Kim Lunman. firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: Official website: www.h2osecrets.com; Trailer: www.youtube.com/pixnat;
Online shop: www.shop.pixnat.com
DVD info: H2O secrets J.B.King, 52 minutes - HD, English - optional French, bonus: directors - photos gallery - orchestra - deleted scenes.
Kim Lunman is a member of our TI Life team. An award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville, Kim is presently writing several new feature stories for a new magazine, Island Reflections which will be distributed across the Thousand Islands, on both the Canadian and US sides of the River, this summer. When Kim told us about the documentary film we could tell she was going to be excited about this story. We were not disappointed for she paid special tribute to Captain Snider and at the same time captures the sadness of the tragedy which happened 80 years ago.