UPDATE: Strathcona County looking to improve response after pilot stranded for hours on South Cooking Lake

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Strathcona County looks to improve response times after pilot left stranded
WATCH ABOVE: Strathcona County Fire officials are looking to improve response times after an elderly pilot was left stranded for hours on South Cooking Lake. Sarah Kraus reports – Jul 3, 2016

When Ed Boychuck took off from South Cooking Lake in his Cessna 180 float plane on Tuesday, he never imagined he would end up crash landing, or that it would take the fire department four hours to reach him.

“We just saw everybody come down and the cops were all over the place,” Wayne Tabula, another pilot who witnessed the plane in the lake, said.

The pilot of the Cessna was on his way to Smokey Lake. Shortly after taking off from the airport’s runway, RCMP said the plane lost altitude and it’s wing touched the water, causing it to flip over.

“Our main concern was how is he? I hope he’s ok,” pilot Shaer Bowora said. “When we pulled in, I saw the seaplane parked on the ramp. I said that’s a nice seaplane, that’d be fun to fly. Then he took off and I didn’t see him.”

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The pilot suffered minor injuries and was able to safely remove himself from the plane and call 911. Strathcona County Fire crews were on the scene promptly – but getting closer to the crash site would prove to be a challenge.

“It was a very challenging rescue,” Deputy Chief Devin Capcara said. “The lake is quite low. There’s a very thick layer of mud on the bottom. The first crew was very challenged to get out to the pilot – it was basically crawling their way through mud.”

The County’s Water Rescue Team was deployed in a rapid deployment craft – a specialized yellow dingy. The team had just been out on the lake six weeks earlier for training. But the mud was too much for the boat, and fire crews arriving in trucks were having difficulty reaching the shoreline because the water had receded so much.

“We put the boat off, tried to get it through the mud,” Capcara said. “They weren’t able to get it through. They had to winch it back, reload it, move it to another spot, try it again, so all in all it took us almost four hours from the time we got there to the time we were able to get the boat in the water and get out there.”

“Frustrating for everybody there,” Capcara added. “But once we knew that the gentleman was safe and had relatively minor injuries- we switched from an emergent mode to try to get there as safely and effectively as we can.”

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Jim Meyer watched emergency responders struggling to get to the plane. He didn’t understand why the rescue was taking so long.

“The plane was about a mile off shore and about a mile and a half from the Strathcona County Fire Department on South Cooking Lake. 4.5 hours is ridiculous to get to a plane that’s a mile off shore,” Meyer said.

Meyer owns a flat-bottomed canoe, which easily navigates through shallow water.

“I figured if anybody had a chance to get there I could,” Mayer said. “It took about 40 minutes to get out there– about a mile.”

When Meyer reached the pilot, he had visible eye, leg and shoulder injuries.

“He was happy to see somebody– he wanted some water.”

Meyer helped the elderly man into the canoe and stayed with him until firefighters finally arrived a few minutes later.

“I felt good getting out to him. I feel like after four hours of waiting for help he was quite excited to see somebody — and I was actually quite proud of myself,” Meyer said.

Despite the delayed response, 76-year-old Boychuck said he was grateful to everyone that assisted in his rescue.

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“I have nothing but praise for Strathcona County Fire and Jim Meyer,” Boychuck said. “They had a few problems but I’m OK with that. Everything worked out great.”

He said he thinks the best thing that could happen is for the fire department to learn from the issues moving forward.

“We’ll look at what we can do better in the future, what we will change and what we can do differently,” Capcara said.

The fire official also admitted there were several obstacles that day – but safety was the main priority.

“We could have been more aggressive to get out onto the lake, but again, a little aggressive means a little more dangerous – so we were able to avoid that because we knew he was OK.”

Strathcona County Fire officials are looking into other ways to access a shallow lake.

“We will work with the people that maintain the road to make sure the road is passable,” Capcara said. “Look at creating something like plywood or something we could roll out {over the mud}.”

Meyer plans to pursue answers from the County regarding the lengthy response.

“I’d just like to know that if something happens on that lake, that they can respond and get to that person in a reasonable amount of time.”

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with files from Sarah Kraus

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