One of the 22 survivors of a northern Saskatchewan plane crash says he knew something was wrong shortly after takeoff.
“The plane was just moving up and down, side by side,” said Willie John Laurent, a band councillor with the Fond-du-Lac Denesuline Nation who was on the plane.
“The last I remember is it touching the ground. That’s the last I know.”
Laurent, his wife, Helen, and their daughter were among the 22 passengers – including an infant – and three crew aboard a West Wind Aviation turboprop that crashed on takeoff near the community of Fond du Lac in the boreal forest area of northern Saskatchewan.
It was scheduled to travel 80 kilometres east to Stony Rapids, then on to Wollaston and Prince Albert.
WATCH: First responders and RCMP were on scene on Thursday near Fond-du-Lac, Sask. as they continued an investigation into a plane crash that occurred Wednesday night near Fond-du-Lac airport.
No one was killed in the crash. At least five people were seriously injured and needed to be airlifted to hospital.
Darryl McDonald said his 70-year-old mother, Ernestine, suffered a broken jaw and facial injuries when the plane went down about a kilometre from the airstrip. His sister also suffered injuries to her leg.
Laurent, who was bruised on one side of his body, remembers hearing screaming as the plane went down.
“People yelling, yelling, yelling,” he said.
“Then you smell a lot of fuel, a lot of jet fuel. Good thing there was no spark.”
A photo of the crash site shows the damaged aircraft partly on its side in the trees, with a wing jutting up in the air at a 45-degree angle. The cause of the crash isn’t known yet.
It took about four hours to rescue all the passengers and crew from the plane. Local RCMP officers, rangers and at least 50 residents in the 900-person community immediately went to the scene to help.
WATCH: A plane carrying 25 people crashed early Wednesday evening in northern Saskatchewan, but remarkably, no one was killed in the accident.
Chris Fountain, who’s a guard at the RCMP detachment, was playing radio bingo when he called his work to see if he needed to go in on Wednesday night.
“I actually got Regina telecoms and they told me that the members are really busy, there’s been a plane crash. So I just hung up the phone and went for a ride.”
Fountain jumped on his snowmobile, driving about four minutes into the bush to find the plane and help with the rescue.
“You could smell fuel so, of course, we made sure everybody’s cellphone was shut off and nobody was smoking,” he said.
“We took the ones that were in shock and jumped on Ski-Doos behind people or in front of people and we pulled them out. The rest were on stretcher boards and we sleighed them out up to the road.
“Then the ambulance or whatever nursing station vehicles were there to haul the ones coming off on stretchers out.”
Other residents were helping at the health clinic in the community.
“Everyone was involved,” said Sandra Adam, a resident who spent her night going back and forth to the clinic with blankets and coffee. “It was really crazy.
“Everybody helped out. I don’t think there was one person who didn’t help.”
The twin-engine ATR-42 turboprop can accommodate 50 passengers, but most typically seats 42 people along with two crew. Manufactured in France and Italy, the aircraft is designed for short-haul flights.
ATR, the manufacturer, says more than 1,500 aircraft have been sold, and it has over 200 operators in more than 100 countries, adding that, “every eight seconds, an ATR turboprop takes off or lands somewhere around the world.”
West Wind Aviation, formed in 1983, operates from bases in Saskatoon, La Ronge and Stony Rapids, as well as in northern Saskatchewan. The company is First Nations and employee-owned, with Athabasca Basin Development the majority shareholder.
“Our safety record is exemplary and our customer service exceptional,” the company states on its website. “Fly with West Wind and let us take care for you.”
The airline acquired Transwest Air in 2016 for an undisclosed amount, adding several aircraft to a fleet that included five ATR-42-300s, Twin Otters and Beech planes at the time, and making it one of the province’s largest commercial aviation groups.
Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board were due to arrive in Fond du Lac sometime Thursday.
A toll-free number has been set up by West Wind Aviation for family and friends needing assistance in obtaining information.
The company can be reached at 1-866-933-7755.