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Crash alters tack of Harper's trip to Far North

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces carry a victim of a plane crash in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Saturday, Aug.20, 2011.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Department of National Defence-Sgt. Norm McLean/THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Department of National Defence-Sgt. Norm McLean

Communities across Canada's Far North are grieving the loss of friends and family after a 737 First Air flight from Yellowknife crashed in a failed landing attempt near Resolute Bay, killing all but three of the 15 people on board.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has delayed and shortened his planned visit to the remote, fly-in community – originally scheduled as a two-night stop starting Monday as part of his annual summer tour of the North – and will instead make a short visit on Tuesday.

The news also forces the Prime Minister to alter the tenor of his week-long tour as the grief in Resolute Bay carries over into the other communities on Mr. Harper's trip.

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"It's devastating for everyone in the North," said Health Minister and Nunavut MP Leonna Aglukkaq, who will be with the Prime Minister on the northern visit. "Naturally, it changes the tone of the trip in the communities and we'll deal with that accordingly."

The fact that three passengers survived – seven-year-old Gabrielle Eckalook as well as a 23-year-old woman and a 48-year-old man – is thanks to a grim coincidence. Resolute Bay is second only to Grise Fiord as the country's most northerly community, meaning it would normally take hours for rescue teams to arrive on the site of a major disaster such as this.

But as the plane went down about 10 minutes from the runway Saturday, hundreds of Canadian Forces members happened to be having lunch at a temporary base near the Resolute Bay airport. The soldiers – including firefighters and medics – were preparing for a training exercise later in the week, one that would simulate a "major air disaster." The carefully choreographed mock plane crash, which was supplanted by the chaos of the real thing, was cancelled.

Two Griffon helicopters and one Sea King were quickly dispatched to the scene of the crash, as were firefighters and medics. The Canadian Coast Guard ship Henry Larsen, which was in the area for the exercises, also sent a helicopter.

Twelve people were pronounced dead on the scene. The three survivors were brought back to the temporary military base and stabilized. They were then airlifted to hospital in Iqaluit. The girl and 48-year-old man were later transported by emergency aircraft to Ottawa General Hospital.

The Prime Minister's tour was to have included a first-hand look at the military exercises known as Operation Nanook. But a Canadian Forces official confirmed the operation has been cancelled indefinitely.

Governor-General David Johnston and his wife, Sharon, were in Resolute Bay Saturday morning to meet with the Canadian Forces and were scheduled to meet residents Sunday. In light of the crash, however, he cancelled his Sunday events in the community and returned to Ottawa Sunday evening.

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He issued a statement Saturday saying he and his wife were "deeply saddened by the catastrophe" and that "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."

The Governor-General's office declined to provide further details.

According to residents, the First Air plane had been chartered by Aziz Kheraj, a local businessman who schedules weekly flights to re-supply his various business interests in town, which include a lodge and restaurant. Two girls aboard the plane were Mr. Kheraj's granddaughters. One survived.

The Resolute airport is located several kilometres from the townsite and features a single gravel runway stretching 1,980 metres. It is bordered to the northeast by low sloping hills. Residents said the plane appeared to be turning as it slammed into those hills Saturday afternoon.

At the time, the local weather station reported fog, rain and humidity close to 100 per cent.

One man listening to the airport radio at the time said another plane had tried to land but pulled up due to fog around the same time.

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Ottawa-based First Air has a long history of flying in Canada's Far North, where extreme weather conditions often lead to challenging takeoffs and landings. In spite of its focus on serving remote communities, the airline has a solid track record for safety. There are two known incidents involving First Air planes. A 1996 Twin Otter flight from Iqaluit to Markham Bay crashed, killing the two people on board and a First Air 737 was damaged beyond repair in 2001 after an incorrect landing in Yellowknife, but all 104 people on board that flight survived.

Witnesses said the plane crashed into a small hill near the airport runway, less than two kilometres from town, on its way from Yellowknife. 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.

Resolute resident Doreen McDonald said she was listening to music when her husband heard a loud 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.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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