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Officer's death raises questions about equipment in Arctic rescue

Sergeant Janick Gilbert, who was involved in the rescue of two people stranded on a boat in Nunavut, has died.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Department of National Defence/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Department of National Defence

Moments after Sergeant Janick Gilbert landed in the slush-covered waters off the coast of Igloolik, Nunavut, the search and rescue technician began a calm radio dispatch to the crew of the Hercules aircraft he had just jumped from.

He inflated his life preserver, took off his helmet and pulled a neoprene hood over his head to help keep him warm.

Sgt. Gilbert was found unresponsive five hours later.

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A raft that was supposed to be attached to his life preserver by a tether was missing, with the stitches that had tied the tether to the preserver ripped away. That apparently left the 34-year-old stranded in the water wearing a dry suit investigators say may not have been suitable for the High Arctic environment.

His death raises questions about the equipment he was using and the military's ability to provide timely rescue services in the North.

An initial flight safety report says the investigation into the incident is focused on Sgt. Gilbert's "personal life support equipment and the regulations governing rescue activities" and offers new insight into the last hours of his life.

Sgt. Gilbert flew with a team of search and rescue technicians out of Trenton, Ont., on the morning of Oct. 27, to help a pair of hunters from Igloolik whose boat had become stuck in pack-ice while they were out walrus hunting.

The hunters had activated a personal locater beacon the day before, and an aircraft from Winnipeg had been dispatched to drop a life raft and other supplies.

The Trenton group arrived shortly after 3 p.m. that day, and began to communicate with the hunters by radio.

"The men were distressed and too cold to use the provided supplies," the initial report states, noting that weather conditions were worsening. "Radio contact was lost and the pair appeared unresponsive."

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As darkness began to set in, the rescue technicians decided to parachute out of their airplane and into the freezing water to help the hunters, who they believed were dehydrated and hypothermic.

One rescuer managed to swim to the hunters' life raft, while another, who landed farther away, deployed a personal raft and waited for more help to arrive, bailing the water out of the boat with his helmet.

Sgt. Gilbert landed farthest from the hunters. Without his life raft, he was stuck in the frigid water, waiting to be rescued himself. When a Cormorant helicopter arrived four hours later from Gander, Nfld., everyone was evacuated. Both hunters survived, but Sgt. Gilbert could not be revived.

Reached by telephone at her home in Trenton, Sgt. Gilbert's wife said he became a search and rescue technician about eight years ago because he wanted to help people.

"He just wanted to save their lives, that was what he had in mind," Mélisa Lesquir said of her husband's decision to parachute into the water. "He had a big heart."

Major Bill Canham, who is heading the investigation for the Director of Flight Safety, said it's too early to say whether faulty equipment caused Sgt. Gilbert's death.

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"We know the individuals left the aircraft in good shape, we have a good idea of what they were wearing, and now we want to know how the equipment performed and if it was suitable," he said.

Major Canham said Sgt. Gilbert's dry suit was a "slightly different variation" from those worn by his teammates.

The Canadian Forces operates three search and rescue co-ordination centres. Rescuers at the Trenton base are responsible for a vast region that stretches from Alberta to Quebec, and north to the High Arctic.

Major Canham said he expects to release a final report on the incident, including recommendations, in October of 2012.

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