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Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Resolute Bay, Nunavut on Aug. 23, 2011. Mr. Harper is on a four-day tour of the north visiting Resolute Bay, Baker Lake, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Haines Junction. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives in Resolute Bay, Nunavut on Aug. 23, 2011. Mr. Harper is on a four-day tour of the north visiting Resolute Bay, Baker Lake, Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Haines Junction. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

When troops heard 'no duff,' they knew Resolute Bay rescue wasn't an exercise Add to ...

There was a moment of disbelief when the more than 400 members of the Canadian military who were in this Arctic community for search-and-rescue exercises received the news that a real plane had actually crashed into the tundra.

“Most of us took a split second for it to sink in,” Lieutenant-Commander Albert Wong, a Navy public-affairs officer, said Tuesday.

Like many of his military colleagues, he was eating lunch on Saturday when word came that a First Air flight had missed its landing and slammed into the hills nearby.

“Someone grabbed me from behind and said ‘No duff,’ which means this is real,” said LCdr. Wong. “That’s what everybody heard, ‘Plane crash, 737,’ and all of us started running to our posts,” he told reporters after Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived here to commend those who raced to the scene.

The crash killed 12 people in the tiny, close-knit hamlet.

But the complex rescue operation undertaken by the Canadian Forces, serendipitously in town for Operation Nanook – an annual display of northern military capabilities and an assertion of Canada’s sovereignty in the High Arctic – is credited with saving the lives of the three who survived the crash.

The exercises put fire trucks, helicopters and a full medical facility within minutes of the crash site.

The people in the local hamlet also responded. They are a resourceful group, accustomed to living in a remote and barren land. But their rescue capacity rests largely in the hands of a volunteer fire department and two nurses.

Leona Aglukkaq, the federal Health Minister who represents Nunavut in the House of Commons and who accompanied Mr. Harper to Resolute on Tuesday, said the air disaster reinforces the need for search-and-rescue capacity in her part of the country.

“We all know, as people of the North who depend on air travel, that it could happen to any one of us and we grieve as one for those lives that we have lost in Canada’s North,” Ms. Aglukkaq said at a ceremony held to thank the military and the other response personnel, including the Canadian Coast Guard and the RCMP, for their efforts.

“This tragedy highlights the need for emergency-response capacity north of 60,” she said. “The circumstances that put the Canadian Forces and other responders at the scene of Saturday’s accident, where their competence and professionalism saved lives and provided great comfort to a traumatized community, only proved that point.”

But when asked if the plane crash suggested the need for a larger, more permanent life-saving team in the Arctic, Mr. Harper said that would not be feasible.

“We have to be realistic, there is no possible way in the vastness of the Canadian Arctic we could ever have all of the resources necessary close by, it’s just impossible,” he said.

“What we want to see is what we saw here, which is first responders who are able to move quickly to the scene and then the capability, largely through our military apparatus … to move the larger and fuller range of resources quickly into the area. That’s what the exercise this week is all about.”

The weather on the day of the crash was much like it was during Mr. Harper’s visit on Tuesday. The howling wind forced the pilot flying the giant C-17 cargo plane carrying the Prime Minister and his entourage to abort a first landing attempt on the gravel runway below the plateau that holds the wreckage of Saturday’s crash.

This is a difficult place to live – and a difficult place to stage military operations.

There were four phases to this year’s Operation Nanook, the largest and most complex of the annual exercises that have taken place since 2007. It involved the U.S. Coast Guard and the Danish navy as well as the full range of Canadian military forces.

The fourth phase of the 21-day operation, the signature event, was to have been a mock air disaster and a mock maritime rescue performed for Mr. Harper and the media travelling with him.

Both simulated disasters were cancelled when the participants found themselves responding to the real thing. Had the large contingent of Canadian Forces personnel not been in Resolute at the time of the crash, the response from the south would have taken hours instead of minutes.

But because they were so close, the survivors were quickly evacuated to the medical facility that had been flown to Resolute to be part of the mock exercise. They were then stabilized and transported to Iqaluit on the same day.

“A tragic event like this reminds us all of the unique challenges of this beautiful but sometimes unforgiving land. These challenges can be overcome, but only by having both purpose and capability,” Mr. Harper said.

“Along with the first responders from the Resolute Bay community, you came face to face with the very danger that you were preparing for. Your presence here and your quick response saved lives. Amidst this great tragedy, you helped save lives.”

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