12 killed in Boeing 737 crash near Resolute Bay

First Air charter from Yellowknife went down 12:50 p.m. local time Aug. 20


The First Air 737-200C which crashed Aug. 20 was trying to land at the airport in Resolute Bay, shown here earlier this week. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The First Air 737-200C which crashed Aug. 20 was trying to land at the airport in Resolute Bay, shown here earlier this week. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

(Updated 7:15 p.m., Aug. 22)

Twelve people are dead after a First Air Boeing 737-200C crashed into a hillside close to the Resolute Bay airport Aug. 20, in one of the worst air disasters ever recorded in Nunavut.

Three survivors — a 48-year-old man, a 23-year-old woman and a seven-year-old girl — were first transported that day to Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit.

The seven-year-old and the 48-year-old were then medevaced to Ottawa General Hospital, while, at the time of the last update of this story, the 23-year-old woman remained at QGH.

First Air confirmed in an Aug. 21 statement that all four crew members are dead.

In an Aug. 20 news release, the RCMP said the plane was a charter, identified as flight 6560, en route from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay with 15 people on board, including four crew members.

Ron Elliott, the MLA for Quttiktuq, which includes Resolute Bay, said Aziz Kheraj, the owner of the South Camp Inn in Resolute Bay, booked such charter aircraft regularly to bring in supplies and staff.

CBC North reported on the evening of Aug. 20 that two of Kheraj’s granddaughters were passengers on the charter. One, aged six, has died, while the other, aged seven, was first flown to the hospital in Iqaluit.

RCMP members recovered two black boxes from the site, which they are now keeping secure.

The RCMP sent two forensic identification teams to Resolute Bay: one four-member team to pore through the aircraft’s widely-scattered wreckage to identify deceased person; the other, a two-person team, to help with the accident investigation.

Police said Aug. 20 that passengers’ next-of-kin had yet to be notified and that they were not ready to name any of the 12 dead.

Governor General David Johnston, who started a visit to Resolute Bay Aug. 19, said in an Aug. 20 statement that “Sharon [Johnston’s wife] and I are deeply saddened by the catastrophe that occurred in Resolute Bay, where an airplane crashed earlier this afternoon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragic event.”

Johnston’s visit to Resolute, which started Aug. 19, was to have continued into Aug. 21.

First Air said the aircraft, a 737-200C, last communicated with them at 12:40 p.m. central time and crashed at 12:50 p.m. central time.

First Air also confirmed the aircraft, registration number CGNWN, went down about eight kilometres from the Resolute Bay airport.

Weather at the time was foggy with light winds and visibility of 16 kilometres, according to Environment Canada. The aircraft appeared to crash into a hillside, then caught fire.

The Transportation Safety Board, Canada’s airline safety watchdog, said in a media advisory that it sent a team to Resolute Bay to investigate the crash.

At the same time, Transport Canada said Aug. 20 that it appointed a “minister’s observer” to keep Transport Minister Denis Lebel informed about the progress of the TSB investigation.

On Aug. 20 Lt. Cmdr. Albert Wong, the lead public affairs spokesperson for Operation Nanook, had confirmed there was a plane down “within eyesight” of the runway and that personnel from the Canadian Forces mounted a rescue operation, including search and rescue and medical assistance.

“We had some expertise there so we responded right away,” said Lt. Cmdr. Wong said, who was taking part in the military exercise when he saw the plane go down “within eyesight” of the runway.

About 400 armed forces personnel were in the area for Operation Nanook, the military’s annual arctic sovereignty exercise, which started Aug. 5 and continues until Aug. 26.

Because of their proximity to the crash, some of those personnel were the first to respond to the crash, said Department of National Defence spokeswoman Dominique Verdon.

“We stopped all our activities on Operation Nanook… We were the first to respond,” she said.

The flight that crashed was not connected to activities being conducted by the military.

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said in an Aug. 21 statement she is “deeply saddened.”

“This will be a difficult time for so many people – please take care of each other. This is part of our culture and going to be important now more than ever,” she said.

Tagak Curley, Nunavut’s health and social services minister, said crisis response teams are on their way to Resolute Bay to coordinate counselling for families.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was scheduled to travel Resolute Bay Aug. 22 for what has become an annual trip to the High Arctic.

“I am deeply saddened by news of this tragic plane crash near Resolute Bay,” Harper said in an Aug. 20 statement.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those passengers who lost their lives in this tragedy. We also wish a speedy recovery to those who were injured. I would like to thank the dedicated members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who are in Resolute Bay for Operation Nanook 2011 and who have been working tirelessly on the ground with emergency personnel to respond to the situation.”

Harper also announced Aug. 21 that he would arrive in the community on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Peter Mackay, national defence minister, who visited Resolute Bay Aug. 18, said in a separate statement “my sincere condolences go out to the families and friends of the deceased, and my thoughts are with the three people injured in the crash.”

Mackay underlined the role played by the Canadian Forces, saying “Canada’s men and women in uniform, including 15 medical personnel, with two Griffon helicopters and one Sea King helicopter, were first on the scene, extinguishing fires along with Resolute Airport firefighters, and searching for and providing aid to the passengers and crew of the downed 737.”

The survivors were later transported to Iqaluit by a Canadian Forces C-17 Globemaster, he said.

Transport minister Lebel also issued a statement Aug. 21 to convey his condolences “to the families of those killed in this tragic accident.”

“Transport Canada will cooperate fully with the Transportation Safety Board as it investigates this accident, he said, promising that his department “will continue to work with the Transportation Safety Board to do all it can to maintain and enhance the safety of Canada’s air sector.”

Condolences also came in from Denmark, from the Danish Minister of Defence, Gitte Lillelund Bech, who visited Resolute Bay Aug. 18 with Mackay.

“It saddened me to receive the news about the tragic plane crash near Resolute Bay in Canada on Saturday. I understand that Canadian Forces personnel were among the first to respond to the scene of the crash and provide immediate rescue and emergency services to the downed aircraft. The swift and determined action by these men and women in uniform commands my uttermost respect,” she said Aug. 22. “The tragic accident on Saturday has affected us all. My thoughts are with the victims, their families and friends, as well as with the local communities who have lost well-known neighbours and loved ones.”

Operation Nanook began Aug. 5 when a group of Canadian naval vessels set out from Newfoundland and Labrador. More than 1,100 sailors, soldiers and air personnel from Canada, the United States and Denmark taking part in missions around the area of Resolute Bay, Baffin Bay and Lancaster Sound throughout the exercise.

First Air flies four Boeing 737-200 capable of landing on gravel runways like the one at Resolute Bay’s airport. The planes are fitted to fly both cargo and passengers.

The Inuit-owned First Air, a subsidiary of Nunavik’s Makivik Corp., provides scheduled and charter air services to about 30 communities in northern Canada.

With files from Postmedia News.

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