For three days, they held out hope. It was all families, friends and would-be rescuers could do.
They hadn't heard anything from the Canadian crew of a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter airplane downed in Antarctica last week, and they didn't even know precisely where the plane was. They knew only that it stopped suddenly in a remote, cold, stormy and mountainous area half a world away from Canada. There were supplies on board and the pilot, Bob Heath of the Northwest Territories, was an expert. But the odds were long.
So they waited as search crews fought inclement weather and rugged terrain to find the plane, owned by Calgary-based Kenn Borek Air Ltd. and missing since Wednesday local time. It was all hands on deck, 680 kilometres from the South Pole.
But, by Saturday in Antarctica, the news many feared was delivered. A search plane finally spotted the wreckage – the Twin Otter had made a "direct impact" with a steep slope. It's not yet known why. All that was visible, protruding from the snow and ice, was its tail. There were no signs of life. "It appears that the impact was not survivable," the airline said.
On Sunday in Antarctica, which is 20 hours ahead of Calgary, helicopters landed near the plane, with search-and-rescue teams reaching the wreckage by foot. There, they recovered the cockpit voice recorder, but the wreckage was too unstable to recover the bodies of the three Canadian men.
"As they assessed the conditions and things, all indications were it would be unsafe at this point to further disturb the wreckage," said Lisa-Marie Brooks of Antarctica New Zealand. "Our thoughts remain with all who have a connection to this dedicated crew," the agency added in a statement.
The decision to call off recovery effforts was made jointly by the agency and the American National Science Foundation: they wouldn't risk rescuers lives to recover the bodies. "Kenn Borek is aware of this decision on the search and rescue, and has concurred with it," NSF spokesman Peter West said.
The dead were widely identified as Mr. Heath of Inuvik, Perry Andersen of Collingwood, Ont., and Mike Denton, a Calgary newlywed, though Kenn Borek officials haven't confirmed the identities. Mr. Heath's family has asked for privacy, while messages for family and loved ones of Mr. Andersen and Mr. Denton weren't returned.
When – or if – the trio's remains will be repatriated remains unclear. Winter looms in Antarctica as the research season wraps up. New Zealand officials intend on attempting a recovery next season, which begins in October. The hope is gone, but the waiting continues.
The plane sits now at an elevation of 3,900 metres, on a steep slope near the summit of Mount Elizabeth, roughly halfway between the South Pole and the McMurdo research station. The area is prone to fierce storms, bitter cold and unpredictable weather patterns. To recover the bodies, search crews "might require more in the way of equipment" than what they had Sunday, Mr. West said.
The Twin Otter is an iconic, versatile Canadian workhorse, one of four types of planes in the Kenn Borek fleet. The investigation is now in the hands of Canada's Transportation Safety Board. The agency has been reviewing information and conducting interviews, but hasn't decided if it'll strike up a full-scale investigation. "It's too early to do anything. We don't have much to go with right now," TSB spokeswoman Julie Leroux said.
Kenn Borek pilots are no strangers to Antarctica, having flown in the region for 28 years, sending a 14-plane contingent this season. The three crewmen were "very experienced and well-resourced," Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand officials said in a statement, with Operations Manager John Seward saying "hopes were held throughout the operation for a positive outcome for the three Canadians." The airline didn't comment Sunday.
Among the more high-profile flights the airline has done was the winter evacuation – amid dark skies and temperatures of -68 C – of physician Ronald Shemenski, who'd fallen ill with pancreatitis at a South Pole research facility in 2001. The doctor remains a champion of Kenn Borek Air and its pilots.
"I can't say enough about them. They're very skilled and very professional," Dr. Shemenski said in an interview Sunday, adding he was surprised to hear about last week's crash. "But they're flying through some pretty inhospitable territory with no weather forecasting. You gotta wonder what happened. Right now, it's just anybody's guess."