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Last updateFri, 20 Sep 2019 10am

“By the grace of God”: Noreen McKenzie recounts sinking of the Athenia 80 years later

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It was a callous act of aggression that was a factor in turning public sentiment, ultimately leading to Canada entering World War II.
    But it was “By the grace of God” a six-year-old girl survived and 80 years later is living in Drumheller. That is just what Noreen McKenzie’s father Jesse Carswell Bigelow told a BBC reporter days after the SS Athenia was sunk in 1939.
    September 3 marked 80 years since the sinking of the SS Athenia. This was a passenger ship that left the United Kingdom destined for Canada. Onboard were 1,103 passengers, including the young Biglow family.
    Noreen was just six years old when a U-boat fired two torpedoes at the ship. One exploded on the Athenia’s port side in her engine room.
    Noreen tells the Mail her father was a CNR Station agent in Sibbald, Alberta, and her mother was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she had sisters and brothers. In 1939 they had the opportunity to visit.
    “My Dad got tickets to go over to Scotland,” Noreen tells the Mail.
    She, her mother Catherine, father Jesse, and brother David, 5, embarked on the journey. War tensions were high in Europe. Germany was on the brink of invading Poland and Britain was on high alert.
    “The war scare was on and my mother wanted to come back to Canada earlier because my sister was with her grandparents in Delia,” said Noreen.
    She said because of the war scare, they had tickets for accommodation below on D deck and it was close to the engine room where the torpedo hit.
    “All they could get was two berths, like bunk beds, and my mother was reading us a story sitting on a chair, and when the torpedo hit, of course, all the lights went out and she was in water,” said Noreen.
    The family was scrambling, but her father managed to find a lantern and was calling out for his wife. Her mother was able to get Noreen to some steps where she was safe, and her father had to dive to rescue David.

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    Catherine made it to the deck and was loaded aboard a lifeboat. Jesse soon arrived with Noreen and David in tow.
    “This one man said to my dad ‘get in the lifeboat with your family’ so he got in and we were all together,” she said.
    For the next 11 hours, they were in the lifeboat on the open ocean.
     Other ships in the area responded to the distress call of the Athenia and support came rushing in. the family was rescued from the ocean by the HMS Electra.
    “The guys from the Navy pulled us up in a sling, and Mother said she had to scramble up the ropes like a monkey,” said Noreen. “We
were covered in bunker oil from the explosion.”
    Of the 1,418 onboard including crew, 98 passengers and 19 sailors were killed, 54 were Canadian, including 10-year-old Margaret Hayworth, and William Alan, a Presbyterian minister from Toronto who died when a lifeboat was struck by one of the rescuing vessel’s propellers.
    The Electra took them to Greenock to safety.
     “My dad broadcast on the BCC, he was interviewed by Matthew Halton. Some people in the area heard the message from my dad and phoned my grandparents and they said they heard my dad on the BBC broadcasting from Scotland. He said it was  “By the grace of God that we were saved, and all was well.’”
    “My dad was my hero.”
     At the time, the German government took no responsibility and said no U-boats were in the area. It was not until after the war when the truth came out. This was in part from testimony from a crewmember of the U-boat who was later taken prisoner and held in Lethbridge.
    The family remained in Scotland for about two weeks and then returned to Canada on the Duchess of York, a CPR ship and landed in Quebec City.
    Much of the account was written down by her mother in 1991 for an article in a ship magazine called Sea Breeze. Noreen said she has blocked out most of her memories.
    “All I remember is floating.”
    On the same day as the sinking, Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war. A few days later on September 10, Canada entered the war.
    Last week there was a reunion of the survivors in Halifax, organized by Heather Watts, who was on the Athenia with her mother. Noreen spoke to her about the reunion. There were about 80 there including nine survivors and their families.
    “She was just so thrilled that everything went well.”

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Neuman retires from Royal Tyrrell after three decades

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After more than 30 years Andrew Neuman, executive director of the Royal Tyrrell Museum is retiring.
    Through 33 years, he has served in a number of roles at the institution, each bringing a new adventure.  
    “I got the opportunity to do some really interesting things,” Neuman tells the Mail. ”Initially for the first 20 years, and a little towards the end  I was involved in research projects.”
     Neuman started at the Museum in August of 1986, less than a year after it opened to the public. His initial role was head of collections. He was in that role until 1998, when he became an assistant director.
    “At that point, I was a senior manager responsible for collections, prep labs, shipping and receiving. It was on the research end, but not the research itself, they were  independent .”
    In 2007 he succeeded Dr. Bruce Naylor as the Executive Director.
  He was involved in fieldwork and research throughout Alberta as well as in B.C. Saskatchewan and the Arctic.  As part of bringing exhibits to the world, he travelled to Eastern Canada, the United States, Paris, and Japan.
    “That was mostly while I was collections manager,” he said.
    In his day-to-day work, he saw tremendous change at the museum over three decades including gallery development and refreshes, the development of education programs, locally and through distance via technology. He is leaving after the completion of an expansion to the museum that opened earlier this year.
    “I worked on that for a long time and getting the chance to see it opened and functional, is great and some of the major gallery redevelopments, and getting them to a stage we can really be proud of it, there is a lot of satisfaction.,” he said.  “The distance program is pretty spectacular and world-renowned for its creativity and capacity to reach audiences around the world.”
    “It has really changed over the years, but some of the important elements have not changed so much. It is still really focused on science, the palaeontology, and educational outreach.”
The one thing he will miss is all the people he has worked with over three decades.
    “I’m not leaving the community and am going to continue to be engaged, I haven’t signed up as a volunteer yet, and I probably will and still come by periodically to do the fun stuff. I am sure I will continue to be involved socially and  involved with the Cooperating Society, so I don’t see myself wandering away from the people that much.”
    While he is retiring from the museum, he will continue to still work as a partner in Red Deer River Adventures.
    “Now I can invest more of my time and energy in the business and help it to grow, develop and be successful,” he said.

Bail granted for youth charged in connection with Morrin slaying

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    A girl charged with first degree murder in connection to the murder of a man found near a burning vehicle near Morrin has been granted freedom after posting bail.

    The Calgary Herald reported that on Thursday, September 12, a youth, who cannot be named under provisions of the Youth Justice Act, was granted freedom and released into the custody of a relative. Among the conditions of her release is that she must abstain from drugs and alcohol.

    The Herald reports that her trial is set for next spring. 

    The youth and another person, Dylan Donald Howard of Munson, were charged in connection with the October 16, 2017 murder of Fazal Rehman of Calgary. Rehman’s body was found near a burning car near Morrin, just north of Drumheller. 

The youth was originally charged as an accessory after the fact, but her charges were upgraded to first-degree murder last year.


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