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First Air jet crashes in Canada's high arctic

Cause of First Air 737 crash still unknown

Aug 21, 2011

The man who chartered a jetliner that crashed near Resolute Bay, Nunavut said he's struggling to understand how a routine part of his hotel business morphed into a deadly tragedy in Canada's high arctic.

Local hotel owner Aziz Kheraj was among many who lost friends and family when a First Air Boeing 737 crashed into a hill while trying to land on a Resolute Bay runway at about 12:50 p.m. local time on Saturday.

Chartering passenger planes to run food and passengers from Yellowknife was an ordinary part of his business, he told The Canadian Press. Kheraq said he never anticipated the disastrous aftermath of Saturday's routine flight.

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

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

The company that owns the plane said it still doesn't know why the jet went down.

A First Air representative says little is known about what might have caused the airline's Boeing 737 to crash.

With his voice breaking, First Air's president of marketing and sales Chris Ferris told reporters that it is not yet known what caused the jetliner to crash into a hill.

Twelve people died, including the four crew members, and three others were injured in the crash. Two of three people who survived have been sent to a hospital in Ottawa for treatment.

Bernie Schmidt, executive director of Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit, said a seven-year-old girl and a 48-year-old man were transported by aircraft to Ottawa General Hospital early Sunday morning.

Schmidt told reporters that the child remains in stable condition, while the man's condition has been downgraded to stable but serious.

A 23-year-old woman remains in stable condition at Qikiqtani hospital.

Schmidt said that shortly after the crash he called a code orange at the hospital, which mobilized staff to the crash site. They gathered information on the survivors and began preparing the hospital for their arrival.

"I'm extremely proud of the staff here at Qikiqtani General Hospital and how they responded to this incident," he said.

Schmidt said crisis response personnel will arrive in Resolute Bay on Sunday to help individuals and communities cope with the tragedy, while social services workers will be on standby should residents require further mental health services.

First Air's Ferris also said field teams, including counsellors, have been deployed to provide support in Resolute, Yellowknife and other main stations in the airline's network.

"We are deeply saddened by this tragedy and offer our sincere condolences to the families," Ferris said, his voice breaking.

The names of the 12 victims who died in the crash will not be released yet, Ferris said, before wrapping up the Sunday morning press conference without taking any questions.

According to the airline, 11 passengers and four crew members were on board the aircraft when it went down.

The last communication from the plane was at 12:40 p.m. local time, when the aircraft was about eight kilometres from the Resolute Bay airport, according to a statement from the airline.

Quick response

Daniel Blouin, a communications officer with Canada's Department of National Defence, said it was a lucky coincidence that about 500 soldiers were in the area at the time of the crash.

"It's always a shock when we're preparing for a training exercise for a simulated air disaster and the training exercise ends up not being an exercise," he told CTV News Channel on Sunday.

Blouin said the Forces were stationed close enough to the crash to deploy firefighters, two helicopters and search-and-rescue teams immediately.

"There's nothing fortunate about what happened yesterday," said Blouin. "But just for the fact that the Canadian Forces were able to be here…it's a somber satisfaction in light of some tragic events."

Investigators with the Canada's Transportation Safety Board arrived at the site soon after the plane went down. Agency investigators were already in Resolute Bay to participate in the military exercises scheduled for next week.

Boeing, the aircraft's manufacturer, will join the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to provide technical assistance during the investigation.

A weather report for travellers on First Air's website reported "shallow fog" with a temperature of 7 Celsius around the time of the crash.

The RCMP said late Saturday that 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, the release said, while the remaining two will be dedicated to the accident investigation.

Health minister knew victims

The crash occurred in Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq's riding, and on Sunday she confirmed a personal connection to the tragedy but would not elaborate.

She said she knew some of those on board the plane, and said she will travel to the area this week to offer support to the tight-knit community.

"It's a very tragic day, a very sad day for many people in Nunavut," Aglukkaq said. "I want to offer my condolences to the people affected. This tragedy really affects everyone in the north. The territory is large but in terms of population everybody knows everybody."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was scheduled to travel to Resolute Bay to observe the military exercises on Monday, will now travel to the north on Tuesday. He was scheduled to spend two nights in Resolute Bay, but those plans have changed.

Instead, the prime minister will make a brief stop in the tiny community before travelling to Baker Lake, Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Haines Junction.

Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, who is travelling in Nunavut and visited military personnel in Resolute Bay earlier Saturday, said he observed Canadian Forces members as they responded to the crash.

No one from Johnston's delegation was involved in the crash. The governor general's official events originally scheduled for Sunday were cancelled.

First Air services 30 northern communities from cities such as Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg and Edmonton. The airline says it transports more than 225,000 passengers and 25 million kilograms of cargo every year.

The airline is entirely owned by the 9,000 Inuit of northern Quebec through Makivik Corp., which was created to invest the proceeds of the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The non-profit company purchased the airline in 1990.

According to the airline, the Boeing 737-200 is one of six types of planes in its fleet. It can carry a maximum of 99 passengers.

Cause of First Air 737 crash still unknown
Debris from a First Air 737 airliner at Resolute Bay / Image via Nicolas Laffont/QMI Agency


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