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Air ambulance that crashed was vital to Grand Manan, N.B., community

Klaus Sonnenberg

Atlantic Charter

A pilot and paramedic who were killed in an air ambulance crash Saturday were part of an emergency safety net so vital for the island of Grand Manan, N.B., that it helped shape the community.

Pilot Klaus Sonnenberg and paramedic William Mallock were killed Saturday when the Piper PA-31 Navajo aircraft they were travelling in crashed near the runway of the island's airport. They were returning to Grand Manan, a small island located in the Bay of Fundy, after dropping off a patient at the Saint John Regional Hospital. It was a trip both men had done hundreds of times, saving countless lives and creating a lifeline that made the islanders feel more connected and safe.

"He has saved a lot of lives. There's a lot of people coming forward and saying 'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Klaus," said Dennis Greene, mayor of the community of just fewer than 2,400 people.

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When the plane went down, the two men were travelling with another pilot and a registered nurse, both of whom are currently being treated at the Saint John Regional Hospital and are in stable condition.

The island has a small hospital, but in certain emergency situations, patients need to be airlifted to the larger Saint John Regional Hospital on the mainland. Though the island is serviced through Ambulance New Brunswick, there are no planes stationed on Grand Manan and often, according to Mr. Greene, planes struggle to land when trying to access patients due to weather and the island's size. Mr. Sonnenberg was the owner of Atlantic Charters, which was located on the island and held a contract with Ambulance New Brunswick to shuttle patients who needed emergency care. He was usually accompanied by at least one paramedic on these trips and could deliver patients to Saint John in less than an hour.

Mr. Greene described the service as a "critical" safety net that not only brought peace of mind to the community, but helped shape its very makeup.

"We've had many people who have retired and come to Grand Manan and the main reason that they came is they looked at the health-care system and they looked at [the fact that] if something goes wrong, Atlantic Charters can get us to the hospital," he said, adding the time it takes Atlantic Charters to fly a patient to Saint John is comparable to the driving time for many communities on the mainland.

"With that air service, we don't feel isolated."

Mr. Sonnenberg's wife's brother and parents are now tasked with organizing the service for the pilot as they grapple with the loss; the island has just one small funeral home, operated by Mr. Sonnenberg's in-laws.

Mr. Sonnenberg moved to the island in 1982 from Halifax, where he worked as a Fisheries officer. He started the charter business immediately, first with water planes that would launch off of the beach. Eventually, in 1990, he switched to land-based aircraft that flew out of the island's newly opened airport. His LinkedIn profile lists a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology earned at the University of Idaho, completed in 1968.

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As news of Mr. Sonnenberg and Mr. Mallock's deaths reached across the 24-kilometre-long island over the weekend, the tight-knit community reflected on the contribution both men had made.

Many members of Rhonda Boynton's family have been flown to the regional hospital through Atlantic Charters over the years, including herself when she was giving birth. Her husband is a cousin of Mr. Mallock, and she has known Mr. Sonnenberg's wife since high school. Like so many on the island, she has a deep connection to both men.

"There is no way to describe how everybody feels. I know tragedy happens everywhere everyday but it just seems [worse] when you're in a small, tight-knit place," she said. Ms. Boynton said many people likely would have lost their lives over the years if the charter service hadn't been there to rush them to the hospital. Mr. Sonnenberg was on call 24/7, she said.

"He was there for Grand Manan for many, many years, even up late at night. Anytime you needed his service he was there. He would never say no."

Both Mr. Sonnenberg and Mr. Mallock were married with children. Mr. Mallock's son is an X-ray technician, and a daughter followed in his footsteps and became an EMT. Mr. Sonnenberg's two sons are both pilots – one of whom, Peter, works for the charter service and locals expect he will take over the family business in time.

For now, the New Brunswick government has assured Grand Manan it will get the ambulance service it needs. Ted Flemming, the province's Minister of Health tweeted Sunday that Ambulance New Brunswick will post its air ambulance plane in Saint John when not in use, in order to be closer to the island.

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