Four employees of the Ornge medical transport service are dead after their helicopter crashed on the James Bay coast of Northern Ontario early Friday.
The Sikorsky S-76A helicopter took off shortly after midnight from the Moosonee airport, about 16 kilometres south of James Bay. Contact was lost around 12:11 a.m., and the helicopter hit the ground about one nautical mile northeast of the aiport, according to Transport Canada.
No patients were on board, but all four crew members perished in Canada’s first fatality involving a helicopter air ambulance.
A photo of the scene released by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada shows that the falling aircraft cut a burnt swath through the area’s dense pine trees.
A military rescue aircraft, a C-130 Hercules, was dispatched to the area and located the crash scene. Four search-and-rescue technicians parachuted to the ground and saw that there were no survivors, said Captain Jean Houde of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre at CFB Trenton.
Andrew McCallum, chief executive officer of Ontario’s Ornge air ambulance service, expressed his condolences to the victims’ families.
“Their lives were lost in serving the public, and we owe a deep debt of gratitude,” he said.
The tragedy occurred at a time when Ornge is mired in controversy over a series of private, for-profit ventures created by former insiders that are now at the centre of an Ontario Provincial Police probe.
The Ontario government created Ornge in 2006 to co-ordinate all aspects of the province’s air ambulance service. But the former insiders of Ornge had ambitions to get into the business themselves of not just dispatching commercial air ambulance operators to accident scenes but of competing against those carriers.
Ornge purchased its fleet of Sikorsky air ambulances in 2009 from Canadian Helicopters Ltd., the primary provider of air ambulance service in Ontario for more than three decades. Ornge assumed responsibility for flight operations and maintenance last year.
The helicopter that crashed was built in 1980 and was maintained to Transport Canada standards, Dr. McCallum said. Ornge has grounded its remaining five Sikorsky helicopters but will keep operating by relying on its fixed-wing aircraft, its AgustaWestland helicopters and arrangments with other companies.
The four victims were long established in the small community, said one resident reached in Moosonee.
The captain, Don Filliter, 54, of Skead, Ont., was highly experienced. He began working for Ornge on contract last March and was chief helicopter pilot in the Ministry of Natural Resources’ emergency services branch. He is survived by a wife and two children.
The first officer, Jacques Dupuy, 43, of Otterburn Park, Que., joined Ornge in August, 2012, and had been a bush pilot in Quebec. He leaves behind his wife, Josée Capuano, and their two children.
The other two crew members were primary-care flight paramedics Dustin Dagenais, of Moose Factory, Ont., and Chris Snowball, of Burlington, Ont.
Mr. Dagenais, a 34-year-old Franco-Ontarian who grew up in the Kapuskasing area, had just married last summer and was the father of a 10-month-old daughter. He joined Ornge a year ago, said his wife, Josée Dagenais. “He loved his job so much,” she said.
Nancy Denault-Freeland, a relative, recalled that Mr. Dagenais was a soft-spoken, dedicated man who took the time to teach first-aid techniques to her 11-year-old daughter during a family gathering.
Mr. Snowball, a 41-year-old father of two, was also a volunteer firefighter and had worked as a paramedic in Baddeck, N.S., then for Wabusk Air Ambulance in Northern Ontario. His young children still live in Atlantic Canada, a friend said.
The helicopter had been en route to Attawapiskat, a remote First Nation community an hour away. An Ornge employee in Moosonee, a paramedic, said there had initially been hope that the crew had crashed in a marsh and could have survived, but news eventually came that there were no survivors.