Since they have been old enough to walk, Cheyenne and Gabrielle Eckalook have been inseparable ambassadors for Canada’s High Arctic.
Fixtures at their grandfather’s hotel in Resolute Bay, their giggling faces could often be seen peeking out the front door as visitors lugged their bags up the stairs.
Inside the twosome would play hide and seek with the parade of military commanders, Arctic adventurers and political dignitaries who frequented their family lodge in Resolute Bay, a town forged in grief that has since become a hub of research and military activity.
On Saturday, they separated for perhaps the first and last time. Six-year-old Cheyenne was among the 12 people who died in a jet crash. Her seven-year-old sister, Gabrielle, was among the three survivors.
“Those girls have long been the absolute jewels of this entire town,” Mary Kalluk, an instructor at the local college, said of the two girls. “They’re cute, they’re friendly, they greet and charm every last person who came through this town.”
Just before 11 a.m., the inseparable twosome bounded aboard First Air flight 6560 headed for home after spending much of the summer with their father, Lindsey Pelky, in British Columbia.
Within two hours, their plane, a 35-year-old 737, slammed into a hill a few kilometres from the runway.
One witness at the scene, who did not want his name used, said the little girl who survived repeatedly asked where her sister was before she was flown to Iqaluit and then Ottawa for treatment.
“We’re just trying to hold it together right now,” said Aziz Kheraj, the girls’ grandfather and owner of the hotel. “It’s a very hard time for us right now.”
The girl’s uncle, Terry Audla, said Gabrielle was in good condition considering what she’d been through; she was suffering from a broken leg and several cuts.
The other two survivors, a 48-year-old male and a 23-year-old female, are in stable condition.
For a town of 230 people, the psychological blow of such a disaster is immeasurable, the casualties amounting to 5 per cent of the hamlet’s population.
While authorities have yet to release an official passenger list, family and friends of the deceased have confirmed the identities of several other passengers.
Marty Bergmann, the long-time director of Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program, was a staunch advocate of northern research and tireless in efforts to bring visiting researchers together with locals.
Last year, he told The Globe and Mail about an open-house initiative he’d started that welcomed residents to poke around his research station, capable of hosting 70 scientists at a time, and learn a thing or two about the High Arctic science.
He was scheduled to show Governor- General David Johnston around the station on Sunday afternoon.
Other northerners on the flight included pilot David Hare, flight attendant Ann-Marie Golding and Randy Reid, who cooked in Mr. Kheraj’s hotel.
“They were a great crew,” said pilot Andrew Orr, who used to work for First Air and flew the ill-fated 737 numerous times. “It’s very tough for a tight operation like that right now.”
Mr. Kheraj said that he lost six employees in all.
The crash also exacted a heavy toll on the tight circle of Newfoundlanders who earn their livelihoods through seasonal work in Resolute Bay – electricians, carpenters and other tradesmen who leave home for months at a stretch to help support their families.
Two of the men who perished in the crash were Maritimers who knew the perils of northern air travel first-hand. They had both survived a plane crash in Nunavut on their way home for Christmas from Resolute Bay in 2008.
Michael Rideout and Chesley Tibbo were onboard a Summit Air charter plane when it crash landed short of the airport runway in Cambridge Bay. Both were left traumatized by the accident, but eventually returned to the North for work.
On Saturday, they were not so lucky.
“My husband always told me that any time you get on a plane in the North, you don’t know if you’re going to reach your destination,” Mr. Rideout’s heartbroken widow, Anne, said from the couple’s home in Mount Pearl, Nfld. “Weather and rough terrain are all factors that can change so quickly. Things can, and as we found out, do happen.”
Mr. Tibbo, a carpenter from Harbour Mille, Nfld., also survived the 2008 crash, enduring hours in the numbing December cold before he was rescued. But it left him so scarred and fearful of flying that he didn’t return to Resolute again until this year. Even then, getting back in a plane left him shaky.
“His fear was real,” his neighbour Pamela Pardy Ghent recalled on Sunday. “He said to me, ‘I know lightning doesn’t strike twice. But I’m afraid, the honest truth is I’m afraid.’”
She recalled Mr. Tibbo as a man who was always ready to help shovel a snowy walk, fix a neighbour’s roof or drive her kids somewhere. He died on his birthday, on the day he would have turned 49, after returning to Newfoundland to attend his sister’s funeral.
“He loved people, he loved his work. This is just tragic,” Ms. Pardy Ghent said.
Another Newfoundlander, Morgan Cox, was supposed to be on the First Air flight to Resolute Bay on Saturday but delayed his return so he could stay home for his son’s 12th birthday. The decision saved his life.
“I’m grateful for that birthday party,” a shaken Mr. Cox said from Fortune, Nfld. “If not, I would have been on that flight.”
For decades, Resolute Bay has lived up to its name. It was founded in a disastrous government-enforced relocation effort that uprooted families from homes in northern Quebec and dropped them in an unfamiliar place with harsh northern clime. Last year, the federal government issued an official apology for the affair.
“They are used to enduring a lot here,” resident Lanne McDonald said after the crash. “Death doesn’t bother people as much. Death has been a way of life.”
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