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A Boeing 737 (737-200) jetliner belonging to First Air is shown in Edmonton, Alta,, on July 15, 2009. A 737 operated by First Air crashed on Aug. 20, 2011.

Twelve people are dead after a First Air 737 jet crashed near the hamlet of Resolute Bay in northern Nunavut. Nearby military rushed to the scene, transforming a major training exercise into a real rescue operation.

Witnesses said the plane crashed into a small hill near the airport runway, less than two kilometres from town. Military helicopters, on hand for Operation Nanook, and local residents on all-terrain vehicles rushed to the site to see if they could help pull people from the flaming wreckage.

Police say the plane was a chartered flight travelling from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay. RCMP said there were 15 people on board, including four crew. Twelve died and three were injured in the crash.

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"You could see parts of the plane everywhere ... tail, nose everything," said Saroomie Manik, a former mayor of the community who went to the site.

Resolute resident Doreen McDonald said she was listening to music when her husband heard a large explosion. They looked outside, but could see nothing. The whole of Resolute was blanketed in a thick fog.

"I don't know why anyone would risk trying to land in those conditions," said Ms. McDonald, who runs the airport gift shop.

Ms. McDonald said that two stewardesses and the seven-year-old granddaughter of a local innkeeper were the lone survivors. The girl's six-year-old sister was also aboard the plane.

Aziz Kheraj, the owner of the South Camp Inn in Resolute Bay, confirmed his granddaughters were on the plane and only one survived, but he did not want to discuss details of the crash site.

The three survivors were flown to Iqaluit for treatment, police say, and one of the adults was in critical condition.

The RCMP said Sunday two of the three survivors have been sent to an Ottawa hospital for treatment.

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Constable Angelique Dignard says two of the survivors — a seven-year-old girl and a 48-year-old man — were transported by emergency aircraft to Ottawa General Hospital.

The third survivor, a 23-year-old woman, remains in a hospital in the territorial capital of Iqaluit. Constable Dignard says all three are in stable condition, but would not comment on the nature of their injuries.

Ms. McDonald said that a number of locals had been to the crash site and reported a scene of carnage. The plane was broken in three large pieces, she said, and body parts were strewn across the rough terrain.

"You can see them out there picking up things, parts, right now," she said. "It is not a pretty scene. I feel for the families. That plane just went right into the side of the mountain."

The military was quick to respond, having already planned for Resolute to be the staging ground for a mock plane crash as part of an operational exercise, said Ron Elliott, the local MLA. Mr. Elliott said when he first heard the mayday call come over the radio, he thought there must be confusion from someone who didn't know it was just an exercise.

"We're all in shock up here," said Mr. Elliott, who was trying to fly to Resolute Saturday afternoon but was informed all flights in and out of the hamlet are grounded. "But we're thankful the military is there to assist. With tragedies like this in a community of this size, it will ultimately have deep impact."

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Major Gerald Favre at the northern search and rescue centre at CFB Trenton said aircraft brought in for the exercise are assisting with the rescue, and the crashed plane was not part of Operation Nanook.

Chris Krepski, spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said investigators were on the scene soon after the crash. They were already in Resolute, scheduled to participate next week in the military exercise.

Mr. Krepski said it was too soon to say what caused the crash. "At this point it's very early stages," he said, adding that they were just beginning their investigation.

Just two days ago, the head of First Air, Scott Bateman, issued a press release that the airline had passed a safety audit conducted by the Flight Safety Foundation.

The weather was rainy with a low cloud ceiling, typical for the region this time of year.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to travel to Resolute Bay on Monday for his annual trip to the Arctic while Governor-General David Johnston, who is currently touring the Arctic, was in Resolute ahead of the annual community day on Sunday. He later cancelled his planned events for the day.

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"I was able to witness first hand the professionalism and dedication of our Canadian Forces and civilian organizations as they responded quickly and effectively to this catastrophe," Mr. Johnston said in a news release.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragic event."

RCMP said late Saturday that they had recovered two black boxes from the crash site, and that they were sending six forensic identification officers to Resolute. Four of those officers will identify the deceased, the release said, while the remaining two will be dedicated to the accident investigation.

Some of the forensic officers were also involved in investigating the Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998, the release noted.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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