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Military jumpers recount daring rescue at plane crash site northeast of Yellowknife

Click to play video: 'Daring rescue at plane crash site outside Yellowknife. ‘Most challenging jump of my career’'
Daring rescue at plane crash site outside Yellowknife. ‘Most challenging jump of my career’
WATCH: Canadian military members parachuted in extreme conditions as part of lifesaving efforts to get injured patients from a plane wreckage northeast of Yellowknife. Carolyn Kury de Castillo has the latest information on the crash that seriously injured two people. – Jan 5, 2024

Canadian military members parachuted in extreme conditions as part of lifesaving efforts to get injured patients from a plane wreckage in a remote area of the Northwest Territories last month.

Every year a winter road is constructed that connects Yellowknife to three diamond mines. It’s one of the largest in the world, consisting of over 400 km of ice highway over frozen lakes.

The build normally starts in mid-December and the road opens by early February.

On Dec. 27, 202, a Twin Otter plane carrying two flight crew members and eight winter road workers went down near the Diavik Diamond mine.

A rescue crew from 17 Wing Winnipeg flew three-and-a-half hours to reach the site where the Air Tindi plane went down.

“We can immediately see that the weather is going to be a challenge for us. We were dealing with multiple low layers of cloud, low visibility, because of blowing snow and high winds, and by that point in the day it was also dark which further ads complications,” said Capt. Jason Shaw, aircraft commander with 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 17 Wing Winnipeg.

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Shaw said they were able to locate the crash site fairly quickly because the plane had a functioning emergency locator transmitter.

A small window of visibility opened up and a decision was made to go ahead with the jump from the Hercules aircraft.

The crew set off flares to provide light and three technicians parachuted to the scene facing difficult conditions.

“It was quite a challenging jump,” said Sgt. Vincent C. Benoit, SAR Tech team lead. “It’s something we don’t take lightly and it’s not a decision I take on my own. This is a crew decision and we felt it was safe to do so.  We took the risk and did the jump in low visibility and high winds. Once we all landed safely near the crash site, I was fast to communicate with my aircraft commander that we were safe and sound. I’m sure he was pleased to hear that,”

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Benoit said six people were in a survival shelter that they established themselves but it was exposed to the wind that was close to 90 km/h and driving snow.

The SAR Tech members set up tents with heaters and provided food and first aid.

“In the wreckage, there were still four people inside. Two of them were unable to move with more severe conditions so we were able to provide treatment within the plane,” Benoit said.

The rescue members and plane passengers spent the night at the accident site, providing care for 14 hours until three privately contracted helicopters could arrive in the morning.

“I could say that their conditions improved throughout the night,” explained Benoit. “We built a good relationship with them. We spent a lot of time talking and exchanging our experience because that’s an experience you both share and remember for the rest of your lives.  They were good people.”

He was surprised to see two snowmobiles coming to the scene after they arrived.

“There were four members of the emergency response team from the mine. Four really tough men and hard workers that were there to assist us. I was really pleased to have them to help once they got on scene.”

The patients were taken to Yellowknife. Two were seriously injured while six others had minor injuries.

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“They were exposed to the weather and the elements for sure that was a severe situation.,” said Shaw. “That being said, they were all dressed for the environment and they are all people who are used to working outside and they know that environment because they work outside all winter, so they were well prepared for that.”

While the weather was  working against the rescue efforts a number of things helped: the rescue crew from 17 Wing found the site quickly because of the transmitter, the Air Tindi crew had survival equipment that they knew how to use, and the military rescuers were well trained.

“It was a risk, but we knew 10 people needed assistance on the ground so that’s not something we take lightly. It was the most challenging jump of my career because of all the factors,” Benoit said.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada members from Edmonton have been in Yellowknife this week interviewing people and looking at photos of the plane that was substantially damaged.

“The deceleration forces – how quickly it came to a stop – caused substantial damage to all components to the wings, the engines and the fuselage,”  Jon Lee, TSB Western Regional Manager, told Global News on Friday.

“The plans for recovery of the aircraft are unknown at this time. It’s a difficult location and weather plays a huge part in how resources get out there.”

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He said the investigation is ongoing. They are looking into weather information from Environment and Climate Change Canada and are working with Transport Canada as well as the company involved.

“We are working in very good cooperation with Air Tindi,” Lee said.

Global News reached out to Air Tindi regarding the crash but, as of Friday afternoon, had not received a response.

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road (TCWR) joint venture confirmed that passengers of the Air Tindi charter flight that went down on Dec. 27  were workers heading to one of the camps in order to begin construction of the 2024 winter road.

“TCWR wishes a speedy recovery to the passengers who were injured and has offered its assistance to passengers and their families, should they need it.” read a statement from the joint venture.

After assessing the situation, TCWR said it does not expect the incident to affect the construction of the winter road, which will be completed, as scheduled, in the first half of February.

The director of winter road operations for the joint venture, Barry Henkel said safety it their top priority when it comes to constructing the massive winter road.

He says ground penetrating radar is used to determine the depth of the ice, machines are used to clear the way for the 35-metre wide road and they use water cannons to add more ice to the surface of the road.

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