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TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic November 28, 2014 - 3:11 pm

Taissumani, Nov. 28

Death On An Ice Island

KENN HARPER

T3 was an ice island seven miles long and three miles wide drifting in the Arctic Ocean, when 20 researchers arrived there in May 1970.

They were from the United States Weather Bureau and were to remain for five months. The atmosphere was cozy despite the sometimes minus 60 degree outdoor temperature — the men lived in trailers and worked in well-insulated research huts.

Supply by cargo aircraft in the spring was not a problem — the ice island had probably broken off from Ellesmere Island over three decades earlier and there was freshwater ice about 130 feet thick. It had first been occupied by researchers in 1952. In addition to its name, T3, it was also known as Fletcher’s Ice Island.

One of the researchers was Donald Leavitt. His nickname was Porky. And Porky had a drinking problem.

Booze was scarce on their drifting home, and expensive – those who ordered it had to pay for it themselves.  Many found ingredients in the mess and simply made homebrew.

On three occasions in the first two months on the island, when Porky had finished his own supply, he threatened his campmates with a meat cleaver in order to steal their supply.

On July 7 Porky stole a bottle of homemade raisin wine from Mario Escamilla’s room. He and his friend, Bennie Lightsy, nominally the station manager, were drinking it, mixed with ethyl alcohol, when Escamilla’s friend, Charles Parodi, arrived with a rifle and retrieved what was left of his friend’s wine.

After Escamilla got off work and went back to his trailer, he found the loaded rifle that Parodi had left there. He had it in his hands when Lightsy – still tipsy – arrived and began to argue with him over his selfishness in not sharing his wine.

Escamilla accidentally bumped the rifle against something during this animated discussion. It went off, killing Lightsy.

This killing on an ice island presented a potential legal conundrum. T3 did not legally belong to any nation. Usually, but not always, it drifted in the Canadian portion of the Arctic Ocean, but all the personnel were Americans.

And international law held that an accused should be tried in the district where he committed his crime, or where he is first brought after committing his crime. Mario Escamilla would be charged. But where should he be tried?

The answer depended in part on the quick thinking of government officials in the United States. The last cargo flight to T3 had been on June 8. After that date, there would be no more aircraft arriving for three months because the spring weather in the High Arctic meant that the sometime landing surface was too slushy for a safe arrival.

Escamilla would have to be airlifted out by helicopter. At that time T3 was 300 miles from the North Pole, almost midway between the pole and the Canadian military base at Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. A military helicopter from the American base at Thule, Greenland, could be dispatched, and it could refuel on the way north at Alert.

But once Escamilla was on board, the chopper could not land there for fuel on its return journey – if he set foot in Canada, then Canada would have jurisdiction. And the chopper did not have enough range to return to Thule without refueling.

This logistical nightmare was solved – with great difficulty – by having the chopper, an HH-3E helicopter known as the Jolly Green Giant, refueled in the air by an American C-130 Hercules tanker. The chopper safely reached the American base at Thule, Greenland, from where Escamilla continued on to the United States in a military transport.

Canada made the prosecution of Escamilla easier when it officially waived jurisdiction over this specific incident “without prejudice to a possible future claim of jurisdiction over T-3.”

An American report at the time notes, “Canada has previously argued that it has territorial sovereignty over all Arctic islands to the North Pole. Pierre Trudeau, the current Prime Minister of Canada, however, recently expressed the opinion that this sovereignty does not apply to water and ice. The reason for waiving jurisdiction over the T-3 case was a desire not to interfere with the course of justice for the sake of clarifying a very complex point of international law.” (I am sure that Stephen Harper would take a very different position were a similar case to arise today.)

Most controversially, the United States decided that the floating ice island was legally a U.S. vessel — the same as a ship — and so the case would be tried under U. S. marine law.

Escamilla was lucky. The rifle he had used was proven to be defective – it would fire if it was bumped against something solid, even with no finger on the trigger.

The jury found Escamilla guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to three years. He served 60 days before his appeal was heard. He never returned to jail.

T3 continued its vagrant voyage through northern waters and finally broke up off the coast of Greenland in 1984.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to kennharper@hotmail.com.

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