Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut August 21, 2011 - 6:59 pm

Newfoundland plane crash survivor overcame fear to board doomed Nunavut jet

Ches Tibbo survived a 2008 crash in Cambridge Bay


Postmedia News

Ever since the air crash, Ches Tibbo harboured a deep fear of flying.

On Dec. 13, 2008, he was coming home to Harbour Mille, Newfoundland after a stint building homes in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. On a stopover in Cambridge Bay, his two-engine cargo plane overshot the runway and skidded to a halt in the snowy tundra. The plane’s 12 passengers were able to walk away from the wreck, but all spoke of being spooked by the experience.

This June, Tibbo, a carpenter, was cleared to return to work in the North after more than a year of physical rehabilitation.

“He told me, ‘Pam, I know lightning can’t strike twice, but I just have this feeling,’” says friend and neighbour Pamela Ghent.

On Saturday, Tibbo was one of 12 people killed when a First Air Boeing 737 crashed outside Resolute Bay. It was his 49th birthday.

The aircraft was just finishing off a four-hour flight from Yellowknife when it slammed into a hill just outside of the Cornwallis Island community, breaking apart on the rocky tundra.

All four crew members — two pilots and two flights attendants — were lost in the crash. Also killed was Martin Bergmann, director of Natural Resources Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program. He was scheduled to give Governor General David Johnston a tour of Resolute Bay’s new Arctic research facilities on Aug. 21.

Normally, getting rescue crews to the outskirts of Resolute Bay would take hours — if not days. The hamlet is more than four hours from CFB Trenton, the base responsible for much of the Arctic’s search and rescue. Miraculously, at the time of Saturday’s crash, the Canadian Forces were just outside Resolute Bay, planning an exercise that included “a simulated major air disaster conducted in the vicinity of Resolute Bay.”

Within minutes of the crash, soldiers arrived by helicopter to find a landscape of twisted metal, a tail fin and a pair of engines the only clue that the debris lining the rocky hillside had once been an airliner. Three of the passengers were still alive: a 48-year-old man, a 23-year-old woman and a seven-year-old girl, all of whom were listed in “stable” condition as of Sunday afternoon. The man and the girl have been airlifted to Ottawa General Hospital. The woman is undergoing treatment in Iqaluit at the Qikiqtani General Hospital.

The aircraft had been chartered by Resolute Bay businessman Aziz “Ozzie” Kheraj. A Tanzanian immigrant, Kheraj came to Canada in 1974 and gradually built up a business empire in Resolute Bay that included contracting, expediting and the South Camp Inn, a Resolute Bay hotel catering to scientists and prospectors. As a man who almost-literally owned half the town, locals took to calling him the “Wizard of Ozzie.” Six of the dead — including Tibbo — worked for Kheraj’s construction operation.

Two of Kheraj’s granddaughters were also on the plane. One, a seven-year-old, was rescued and airlifted to a hospital in Ottawa. The other did not survive.

Radio operators at the Resolute Bay airport lost contact with the aircraft when it was only 10 kilometers from the gravel runway. Confused, the tower radioed an incoming cargo plane and asked them to keep an eye out for the missing airliner. Peering through a momentary window in the fog, the crew spotted black smoke and flames emanating from a debris field of broken metal.

On the online aviation forum, pilots speculated that the crash had been a “controlled flight into terrain,” a situation in which a functional aircraft is unintentionally flown into an obstacle by a disoriented pilot. A common cause of air crashes, “controlled flight into terrain” was behind the incidents that killed Buddy Holly, John F. Kennedy Jr. and most recently, Polish president Lech Kaczyński.

A post from an anonymous First Air employee on the site chastised the “premature conjecture” and “uninformed postings” of other avcanada members. “Please allow us the time to grieve the loss of our dear friends,” it read.

Whatever the cause, pilots speculate that weather undoubtedly have played some part in bringing down the massive airliner. Resolute Bay was shrouded in thick, soupy clouds at the time of the crash. “We are swimming in fog,” an independent journalist tweeted in French from Resolute Bay not long after the crash.

If he had been coming into Vancouver, the First Air pilot could have redirected to any one of dozens of nearby airports. In Resolute Bay, however, the nearest airstrip is hundreds of kilometers away — usually beyond the fuel range of a loaded cargo plane. The Resolute Bay airport also offers few landing aids aside from a radio operator. Compared to a full-service airport in the “South,” it is little more than a patch of gravel flanked by few sheet-metal buildings.

Morgan Cox from Fortune, N.L., has worked construction for 15 years in Resolute Bay. Cox had been scheduled to return to the northern hamlet on the Saturday flight, but he decided to stay another week at home in order to attend his son’s birthday party. “If it wasn’t for that I probably would have gone,” he said from his Newfoundland home. His brother Wayne was on the tarmac waiting to pick up workers when the crash occurred. Although the fog was too thick to see anything, he — along with most of the town’s 230 residents — heard the echoes of a massive explosion.

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