Sorrow and remembrance will hang over a newly built memorial near a tiny Arctic hamlet Monday as the families of 12 people killed in a fiery plane crash gather on the pebbled tundra where the jet went down one year ago.
“Just a simple few prayers said and we’ll say our goodbyes,” said Aziz Kheraj, a hotel owner in Resolute, Nunavut, who lost friends, employees and a six-year-old granddaughter when the First Air 737 that he had chartered flew into a hill near the airport.
“Every day’s a tough day. Every day is different. Some days are harder than others, but all you do is put your head down and plug away. Not much else one can do.”
The pain of the crash spread from this dot on the northernmost shores of the Northwest Passage like a stain across the whole country. The victims were from the Maritimes, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Yellowknife and across the North.
Many of their family members flew to Resolute, sponsored by First Air, to spend the weekend creating the monument to their memory — a concrete pedestal adorned with a bronze plaque.
First Air also plans to hold a private ceremony in Yellowknife for the families and co-workers of the four crew members who died on flight 6560.
The company said its 1,000 employees across the Arctic will observe a moment of silence at 11:42 a.m., the exact moment the plane struck the hillside.
The impact split the jet into three pieces and flung debris and flaming wreckage across the rugged terrain.
Three passengers miraculously survived: the dead girl’s seven-year-old sister, Gabrielle Pelky, and geologists Nicole Williamson and Robin Wyllie.
“The memories are still full of raw emotion for everyone ... enough to make a grown man cry,” Wyllie, 49, wrote in a letter published Friday in a northern newspaper.
“Not a day goes by that we do not recall this terrible event and the tragedy it inflicted upon so many lives.”
Residents who heard the loud bang and spotted the flames and smoke that followed rushed on ATVs to the crash site to look for possible survivors. They were joined by a large military contingent that happened to be in the area on annual manoeuvres that ironically were to include a mock plane crash.
The army’s After Action report on the rescue effort, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, gives officers on the site high marks for their response.
A military helicopter was dispatched to the scene within 12 minutes of the crash, the report says. A search team from that chopper and one from the Coast Guard found the three survivors and transported them to a military field hospital that had been set up for the exercise.
The survivors were airlifted by a military plane to Iqaluit. They were later sent to hospitals in Ottawa.
“Both other government departments and Canadian Forces personnel responded swiftly and professionally to the First Air crash,” the report concludes.
But there is no mention of the cause of the crash or the military’s role at the airport when it happened.
Although transport investigators are still looking into the cause, several lawsuits lay at least partial blame on the military for taking control over the airport that day.
The small airport is normally an uncontrolled airspace with no air traffic control service. Pilots navigate themselves onto the runway.
The suits detail how the military made an agreement with Nav Canada, Canada’s civilian air traffic authority, to establish a temporary air traffic control tower and guide in all aircraft.
The lawsuits claim there were several planes coming into the airport, but the military did not have enough people on duty to handle the traffic. They allege those working the tower were not briefed or properly trained to navigate civilian planes.
The suits also detail how soldiers were in communication with the crew of First Air 6560 and gave the plane permission to land.
None of the allegations has been proven in court and statements of defence have not been filed.
The Transportation Safety Board revealed in an interim report that the crew was preparing to land. The plane’s landing gear was down and locked and the flaps on its wings were open.
The report said the plane’s two pilots wouldn’t have been able to see the runway because of fog, cloud and drizzling rain, so they tried to land using navigation instruments.
They aborted the landing two seconds before crashing into a hill. The plane was 1.6 kilometres from the runway.
The stunned survivors found each other after the crash. The RCMP said Williamson followed the sound of a crying girl and found Gabrielle sitting on a rock. Wyllie wrote that the three of them, all with broken bones, limped away from the wreckage and were soon found by military firefighters.
Over the next few days, experts removed the remains of the dead and studied the wreckage. The Rangers reserve unit provided security for the area when hungry polar bears approached. The chartered jet, in addition to people, had been carrying 2,000 kilograms of food to the isolated community.
An official with the transportation board was unable to provide an update on the crash investigation, but earlier said staff were still looking at the plane’s navigational equipment. They also planned to study whether the military’s control tower interfered with the landing.
An earlier news report said the plane was not equipped with a terrain awareness warning system (TAWS), but had an older version of the equipment.
Last month, the federal government announced new regulations requiring all private turbine-powered and commercial planes with six or more passenger seats to have TAWS. Operators have two years to install the systems.
The transportation board said it has no idea when its final report into the crash will be complete.
“Like the survivors, we look forward to understanding what happened one year ago,” Kris Dolinki, president of First Air, said in a statement. “We will never forget that event of that day and the lives and legacies of those who passed will remain in our thoughts forever.”
Wyllie declined an interview but wrote at length in his letter that air travel is essential for life in the North.
He said passengers need to smile and thank their flight crew each time they step out of a plane. “These people risk their lives on our behalf every day of the year to deliver us safely to our friends, families and colleagues. They bring us the mail and freight that make our modern lifestyle possible in the North.
“It is appropriate to remember the dedication and sacrifice of the ones who did not make it home.”
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