Unlikely coincidence helps plane crash survivors

00:09, Aug 22 2011
A member of the Canadian Forces watches a helicopter in front of the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the hills behind, in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
HILL TOP CRASH: A member of the Canadian Forces watches a helicopter in front of the wreckage of a plane that crashed in the hills behind, in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Within minutes after the Boeing 737-200 passenger jet slammed into a hill in Canada's remote Arctic region, military helicopters were landing at the crash site to evacuate the three survivors of the crash that killed 12 people.

In an unlikely coincidence, several hundred military personnel in the region preparing for a mock airliner crash training exercise suddenly found themselves plunged into a real rescue mission.

First Air charter flight 6560 crashed Saturday afternoon (Sunday, NZ time) in foggy weather as it was approaching the airport near the tiny hamlet of Resolute Bay in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Local residents rushed to the scene in their all-terrain vehicles only to find a massive military rescue operation under way.

Officials say the rapid response may have increased the chances for the three survivors among the 15 people on board the plane which crashed in rough terrain in one of the most remote regions of Canada.

"Our thoughts and prayers remain with those affected by Saturday's tragic plane crash," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. "Thanks to the herculean efforts of first responders, including members of the Canadian Armed Forces, lives were saved that otherwise might have been lost."

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Angelique Dignard said two of the survivors - a seven-year-old girl and a 48-year-old man - were transported to a hospital in Ottawa from a medical facility in the Nunavut territorial capital of Iqaluit. A 23-year-old woman remains in a hospital in Iqaluit.

Dignard said all three were listed in stable condition, but she would not comment on the nature of their injuries.

National Defence spokesman Daniel Blouin said the military had been planning to stage a mock airliner crash rescue on Monday (tomorrow, NZ time). A temporary base had been set up just outside Resolute Bay, about two kilometres from the crash site. That enabled the military to reach the crash site within 10 minutes of the accident, Blouin said.

He said almost 500 military personnel were already in the community to take part in the military's annual northern training exercise, Operation Nanook, which has now been suspended until at least Tuesday (Wednesday, NZ time).

"It's not often that this level of response is here at this location," Blouin said. "The fact that we were able to get four birds in the air literally within minutes of the crash happening and use the helicopters to bring the people back to our unit medical centre, to say that it helped is certainly safe to say."

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said the outcome for the survivors could have been worse if the military had not been there.

"They were just hours away from practicing what actually happened in real life," Aariak said. "It's good to hear the response team living in Resolute Bay had extra help from the military because in such remote communities it is always hard to get the level of response that is required."

First Air spokesman Christopher Ferris, his voice near breaking, said the cause of the accident has not been determined yet. He said all four crew members were killed.

"Our thoughts and focus are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew and the community of Resolute Bay," said Ferris, who also thanked the Canadian military for their immediate response.

Police have yet to identify any of those killed in the crash.

The RCMP said the plane's two black flight recorder boxes had been recovered from the crash site. Forensic identification teams were working to identify the bodies and assist in the investigation.

Aziz Kheraj, the owner of the nearby South Camp Inn, said he had chartered the flight from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to Resolute Bay every three weeks for the past six months to bring food and passengers to his hotel.

"It's a bad time," said Kheraj. "We lost quite a few people on that plane, so it's pretty tough. We lost six staff."

Kheraj told The Associated Press by telephone that his two granddaughters were on the plane, but only one of them survived - the seven-year-old girl hospitalised at Ottawa General Hospital.

Ferris said counsellors have been deployed to provide support to residents of Resolute, Yellowknife and other main stations in the airline's network.

First Air said in a news release that the plane's last reported was when it was about eight kilometres from the Resolute Bay airstrip.

Witnesses have said there was thick fog in the area Saturday. An airport worker, who wouldn't give his name, said there was a low cloud ceiling at the time of the crash, which lifted about 10 minutes afterward. Witnesses said the wreckage was strewn across a hill near the airport runway.

Resolute Bay is a tiny community of about 250 people tucked in a shallow, gravelly bay along the northernmost leg of the Northwest Passage. Its population is mostly aboriginal natives known as Inuit people. Nunavut territory has a population of about 33,000 spread out through 25 communities.

"Individuals in each of our 25 communities are closely connected through family and friends so whenever there is a tragedy like this everyone in all of our communities feels it so much," Aariak said.

Harper was scheduled to travel to Resolute Bay on Monday on his annual trip to the Arctic, but the prime minister now plans to fly there on Tuesday to pay his respects to community leaders and first responders.

Canada's Governor General David Johnston and his wife Sharon, who are currently touring Nunavut, were in Resolute on Saturday morning for a previously planned visit. Johnston's scheduled Sunday events were cancelled. Johnston is the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as Canada's head of state.

Despite its remote location far above the treeline, Resolute is known as the nexus of the North, a frequent staging community for scientific, military and commercial expeditions. It's also the base for the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf project, a federal institution that handles logistics for Arctic researchers. Resolute is also the planned location of the army's new winter warfare school.