Inside a small airport terminal in the Nunavut community of Sanikiluaq, a clutch of residents waited for family members to arrive Saturday night on a twin-engine turbo prop plane from Winnipeg.
The scene was a familiar one in this vast Arctic territory, where the only way in or out is by aircraft. With two pilots and seven passengers on board, including a six-month-old boy, the Perimeter Aviation LP aircraft reached the runway around 6 p.m., snowflakes blowing through the dark sky.
The plane did not land on its first attempt, but nothing seemed wrong with the aircraft, passenger Malaya Uppik told The Globe and Mail in a phone interview from her home in Sanikiluaq. On its second bid to land, at 6:13 p.m., the aircraft crashed near the end of the runway, coming to rest on its belly, down a slope.
Ms. Uppik, 46, doesn’t remember the moment the plane hit ground, but knows she closed her eyes just before. She also remembers hearing the screams of the infant’s mother.
“The baby’s mother was crying, ‘Where is my baby? Where is my baby?’ ” Ms. Uppik said Sunday, almost 24 hours after the crash.
The boy perished – the only passenger to die. Most escaped without serious injuries, treated at the local health centre in this tiny Inuit community of about 800 people, located on the Belcher Islands in the southeastern corner of Hudson Bay.
The pilot and co-pilot were taken to Winnipeg for medical treatment, said Trevor Ryder, vice-president of operations for Perimeter Aviation, which is based in Winnipeg and operates more than 30 aircraft. The pilots’ injuries are not life-threatening.
With the help of the RCMP, the federal Transportation Safety Board has begun examining the circumstances of the plane crash, gathering information from the air-traffic controller Sunday. The cockpit data recorder was recovered from the aircraft, known as a Fairchild Metro 3, and will be sent to an engineering laboratory in Ottawa for analysis, said TSB investigator Gayle Conners.
“We’ll be able to hopefully get information from that,” Ms. Conners added.
Investigators plan to interview the pilot and co-pilot. It’s not yet clear whether blowing snow played a role in the accident. Canada’s territories have experienced several plane crashes in recent years, including one that killed a dozen people in the Nunavut community of Resolute in August, 2011.
“We look into everything,” Ms. Conners said as she outlined some of the possible factors that will be examined in the Sanikiluaq accident. “We’re gathering information on the weather at the time of the occurrence. We’re looking into runway conditions. We’re looking into the state of the aircraft.”
The Perimeter plane was chartered to Keewatin Air, which schedules three trips a week between Winnipeg and Sanikiluaq. The aircraft was damaged substantially when it hit the ground, its nose partially torn, its right wing dented. But it did not ignite, giving passengers time to escape as fuel spilled onto the snow.
Some of the passengers, including Ms. Uppik, were returning home on Flight 671 after travelling to Winnipeg for medical appointments. Ms. Uppik said the baby accompanied his mother on the trip because he was still breast feeding. She did not know why the baby’s mother went to Winnipeg. The RCMP would not confirm the child’s identity.
When the plane crashed Saturday, a loud alarm sounded inside the airport controller’s office, recalled a Sanikiluaq resident who was at the airport. He saw scores of people rush outside, hop onto their snowmobiles and race to the plane.
Inside the aircraft, the pilot began yelling for people to get out. Ms. Uppik remembers opening her eyes then.
“The pilot went across my seat. He cracked the window. He told us to go out right away,” Ms. Uppik told the The Canadian Press in a separate interview.
Snowmobiles took her and other passengers to the terminal. Volunteer firefighters and RCMP were at the scene within minutes.
Ms. Uppik said she bit her tongue, but was otherwise fine. “I am just resting,” she said Sunday. “I feel a lot better today.”
Sarah Qavvik was also on the plane. She said she suffered bruises and hit her head. Like Ms. Uppik, she didn’t have any idea what caused the accident.
“It was so scary,” she told The Canadian Press. “I’m still in shock.”
The presidents of Keewatin Air and Perimeter Aviation, along with four Perimeter staff members, flew to Sanikiluaq on Sunday to assess the wreckage and to offer help to the tight-knit community. It is a place where everyone knows everyone, said Nunavut MLA Allan Rumbolt.
The local politician was home Saturday when he received a phone call about the crash and, like many others, he headed quickly to the airport. He said the community pulled together to help the passengers and are rallying behind the family of the baby boy.
“It affects everybody in a way,” he said. “We want to give the family time to grieve.”
The tragedy has saddend many. Inuk NHL player Jordin Tootoo, a right winger with the Detroit Red Wings, expressed condolences over Twitter, while Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak and Inuit Leader Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, offered sympathy in statements.
“During this holiday season, my thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of the infant whose life ended far too soon, to the survivors, and to the entire community of Sanikiluaq,” the premier said.
Mr. Audla noted: “This is a time for us to come together as Inuit, to support one another and provide comfort in any way we can.”