Zack Johnson was driving along a northeast Florida beach just days after Hurricane Irma pummeled the state with intense wind, rain and storm surge when something out of the ordinary caught his eye.
“We happened to find this ball of stuff on the high water line. I know I drove past it at least five times,” Johnson, a park ranger, told WJXT. “Other rangers say they drove past it, too.”
What Johnson discovered on Sept. 21 was a tangled bunch of military gear, including parachute rigging, a parachute harness, a float coat, bits of metal and survival supplies, all of it apparently dredged up by Hurricane Irma. Johnson said he knew he’d found something significant the second he noticed the lieutenant’s stencil on the back of the coat. He handed the debris over to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and posted about the find on his Facebook page.
But what he didn’t know right away was that the trove of gear he’d stumbled upon would provide closure for the family of a Canadian Navy pilot — a man who had vanished decades before, leaving his parents and siblings searching for any answers they could get. The debris may even suggest that the long-lost pilot’s death was quick.
“It was traumatic for us and we really had no closure,” the pilot’s brother, Dick Troy, 80, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “My mom and dad grieved for many years. We all did, but a mother has a close attachment to her children, as you know, a special attachment. So they went to the grave without getting anything.”
Six decades ago, 29-year-old Lt. William Thomas Barry Troy disappeared, almost without a trace, along the Florida coast. A native of New Brunswick, Troy was flying an F2H3-Banshee fighter jet for the Royal Canadian Navy on Feb. 25, 1958, and had taken off from an aircraft carrier in a dense fog — headed to a naval station in Mayport, Fla., according to the Canadian government.
But his plane mysteriously dropped out of a four-aircraft formation and never landed. The Canadian Navy and his family assumed the worst, though his body was never recovered and substantial debris from his aircraft didn’t turn up.
All that the U.S. Navy found when they searched for him was a helmet and a wheel from his fighter jet, according to the CBC.
He was listed as “buried at sea.”
The debris that turned up last month could have been buried for decades beneath sand dunes, Johnson speculated, and only brought to the surface this year.
“Thank god the person who discovered it was good enough to do something about it,” Sandra Berry, Troy’s younger sister, told CTV Ottawa. “If they had just not cared we could still be in the dark.”
Johnson also said that it appeared the pilot’s parachute hadn’t opened during the crash. That news was comforting for the pilot’s brother, Dick Troy, to hear.
“The fact that the chute was never deployed means it was very quick,” Troy told the CBC. Troy added that he got more details about his brother from talking to Johnson “than we ever would have got from the Navy.”
Troy told the CBC he hopes the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will eventually give the parachute and other debris to their family as a memento to remember the family member they lost — and whose death they knew so little about for decades.