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6-year-old girl, previous Arctic plane crash survivor among victims of First Air disaster

6-year-old girl, previous Arctic plane crash survivor among victims of First Air disaster - image

RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut – One was a six-year-old
granddaughter. One was returning to his Arctic job from his sister’s
Newfoundland funeral.

One was the Winnipeg-based director of one of Canada’s most
important arctic research facilities. Others were flight crew based in
Yellowknife and Edmonton.

As the identities of the victims in Saturday’s Arctic plane
crash trickled out Sunday, the pain of the tragedy spread from the remote
hamlet of Resolute where the jet went down, across the North and to the entire
nation.

“It’s a bad time,” said Aziz Kheraj, a local hotel
owner and businessman who chartered the First Air 737 that crashed into a small
hillside near the tiny community’s airstrip, killing 12 and injuring three.

Kheraj had two granddaughters on the plane. One was among
the dead, the other was flown to Ottawa General Hospital.

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“We lost quite a few people on that plane, so it’s
pretty tough,” Kheraj said. “We lost six staff.”

Passenger Ches Tibbo, a carpenter from Harbour Mille, N.L.,
had been in a previous Arctic plane crash in 2008 and had been afraid to fly
ever since.

“It has been totally devastating for this
community,” said Pam Pardy Ghent, 41, Tibbo’s next-door neighbour.

Also killed was Martin Bergmann, the Winnipeg-based director
of Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Project in Resolute, well-respected in
Arctic science circles for his tireless advocacy of northern research.

While the RCMP have not officially identified any of the
dead, they do say next of kin have been notified.

The impact of the fiery crash isn’t limited to the community
in which it occurred, said Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak.

“We have 25 communities in Nunavut and we always feel
the pain and loss of those who perished as if they were part of our
community,” she said. “We have such a connectedness in all of our
communities, so our hearts and thoughts go out to all those affected throughout
and especially those in Resolute.”

All four of the plane’s crew are among the dead, and First
Air officials struggled with their emotions as they answered questions Sunday.

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“This accident is a tremendous tragedy for us all,
throughout the entire North,” said CEO Scott Bateman in Yellowknife.
“Our First Air family extends across the entire Canadian North and we’re
well aware that this tragic event touches the entire region and we all grieve
together at this difficult time.”

First Air has sent counsellors to provide support in Resolute,
Yellowknife and other main stations in the airline’s network. The Nunavut
government has also sent counsellors to Resolute, as well as to other
communities where the victims had family. 

“There are many other relatives that are living outside
of Resolute that are closely connected to the people involved in that
tragedy,” said Aariak.  “Mental
health service and counselling service is very, very important for us to deploy
in situations like this.”

The cause of the accident remains unknown. Transportation
Safety Board inspectors were on the site Sunday.

Hamlet residents and soldiers from nearby military exercises
rushed to the scene of the crash Saturday afternoon in a desperate effort to pull
survivors from the flaming wreckage.

Witnesses described how wreckage was strewn across a hill
near the airport runway. One said the plane was broken into three pieces.

RCMP Cst. Angelique Dignard said two of the three
survivors  – Kheraj’s seven-year-old
granddaughter and a 48-year-old man – have been sent to hospital in Ottawa.

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The third survivor, a 23-year-old woman, remains in a
hospital in the territorial capital of Iqaluit. Dignard said all three are in
stable condition, but would not comment on the nature of their injuries.

The plane was a chartered flight, number 6560, travelling
from Yellowknife to Resolute. Kheraj said the run was a regular part of his
business.

“We charter this flight every three weeks to bring our
food and passengers up. We’ve done that every three weeks for the last six
months.”

The military was already in the area as part of an
operational exercise  – Operation Nanook.
The 700 personnel on the ground for the operation were well positioned to help
with the rescue.

The safety board investigators were already in Resolute,
scheduled to participate in the military exercise. One of the scenarios planned
next week was a mock plane crash.

RCMP said they had recovered two black boxes from the crash
site and that they were sending six forensic identification officers to
Resolute. Four of those officers will identify the deceased while the remaining
two will be dedicated to the accident investigation.

Witnesses have said there was thick fog in the area
Saturday. An airport worker, who wouldn’t give his name, said there was a low
cloud ceiling at the time of the crash. It lifted about 10 minutes afterward.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been scheduled to be in
Resolute this week to observe the military operation.

The Prime Minister’s Office has delayed his departure by 24
hours to Tuesday morning and a planned two-night stay in the tiny hamlet of
Resolute has been scrubbed.

Resolute is a tiny Inuit community of about 250 tucked in a
shallow, gravelly bay along the northernmost leg of the Northwest Passage.

Despite its remote location far above the treeline, Resolute
is known as the nexus of the North, a frequent staging community for
scientific, military and commercial expeditions. It’s also the base for the
Canadian Polar Continental Shelf project, a federal institution that handles
logistics for Arctic researchers.

Resolute is also the planned location of the army’s new
winter warfare school.

The terrain around the community is low and rocky. A large
hill fronted by a dramatic cliff face looms behind the town.

Aariak said flying is part of life in the Arctic.

“This is the only way to get to all of our communities.
That’s how we get our food from the south. When people need to see their family
members outside their own communities they have to fly.” 

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