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Inuit walrus hunter weeps recalling tragic rescue from icy waters

A young Inuit hunter wept tears of gratitude and sorrow as he recalled how he and his father were plucked from ice-choked waters in a dramatic rescue that resulted in the death of a search-and-rescue airman.

"I keep crying," Lester Aqqiaruq said on Monday as he rested at his home in the Arctic hamlet of Igloolik, from where the two set out last week to go walrus hunting.

"It was really awful," Mr. Aqqiaruq said, sobbing through his halting English. "I feel so sorry for the rescue team, really bad."

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Sergeant Janick Gilbert, one of three search technicians who parachuted into the Arctic dark on Thursday night, died during the rescue of Mr. Aqqiaruq, 17, and his father, David.

Mr. Aqqiaruq said he and his father have hunted walrus in the area, about 90 minutes by boat from Igloolik, many times. Both are experienced on the land, and both survived a rescue about two years ago from the same spot, the Fury and Hecla Strait between Baffin Island and the Melville Peninsula.

"Since when I was really young, I've been out with my dad," Mr. Aqqiaruq said.

The two set out in good weather on Wednesday morning and were soon brought down a walrus to take back to Igloolik to share with their family and the community.

But the weather deteriorated. The winds rose, temperatures fell and sea ice began to form.

"We tried to go home, but the ice was too thick and we couldn't move. It was really a big surprise," Mr. Aqqiaruq said.

When they didn't return on Wednesday night, searchers set out from Igloolik. The Aqqiaruqs had registered their destination and had an electronic signal device, but nobody could find them in the moonless, snowy Arctic dark.

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All night and into the next day, Mr. Aqqiaruq and his father, who were in an open aluminum boat, were tossed on stormy seas in blizzard conditions that included 70-kilometre-an-hour winds. Their camp stove, the only source of heat, soon ran out of fuel.

"I was scared," Mr. Aqqiaruq said. "I thought we were going to die."

Eventually rescue planes spotted them and tried to drop a phone, but the two couldn't get to it. On Thursday morning, crews dropped a survival boat, but even though the Aqqiaruqs were able to reach it, that didn't end their ordeal.

"There was a little food but we were really cold and we couldn't really eat it," Mr. Aqqiaruq said. "Our hands were cold. It was really hard to open [the packages]"

A stove in the survival boat got too wet to light. Their original boat slowly sank beneath the ice, taking all their gear with it.

By late afternoon, three search-and-rescue technicians parachuted down to try to save the father and son.

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"I didn't watch [the jump]" Mr. Aqqiaruq said. "We were just there and waiting. It was all dark.

"I was really happy to see them. I said, 'He saved my life.' "

About three hours later, a helicopter from Gander, Nfld., arrived, pinpointed the boat with its spotlight and hauled everyone to safety.

Mr. Aqqiaruq didn't know about Sgt. Gilbert until he saw the unresponsive body of the airman on board the chopper: "He wasn't breathing at the helicopter."

The military said Sgt. Gilbert was "unsuccessful" parachuting into the water. The RCMP indicated he was found non-responsive in the water. Military officials said Monday the death remains under investigation.

Later, at the hospital in Iqaluit, Mr. Aqqiaruq learned his rescue had cost Sgt. Gilbert's life.

"If you could tell that rescue team, I feel sorry for them," he requested.

Mr. Aqqiaruq has some frostbite to his back and feet. His father remained in hospital Monday, but Mr. Aqqiaruq said he'll be fine.

The two have lost all their gear and Mr. Aqqiaruq doesn't know when they'll return to the land. He may never return to those walrus-hunting grounds.

"I don't know," he said. "It's too early."

The Canadian Press

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