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How a Canadian search-and-rescue mission went wrong
« on: April 21, 2012, 12:57:48 PM »
How a Canadian search-and-rescue mission went wrong

By Staff Torstar News Service

Search-and-rescue technicians Sgt. Bruno Lapointe and Sgt. Janick Gilbert. Even as the mission was unfolding, officers were asking questions about the sequence of events that had left three of their own stuck in icy waters with no hope of being rescued for hours

OTTAWA— “They are not OK.”

With those words, military officers confirmed the nightmare scenario unfolding near the top of the world last October. A mission had gone seriously wrong and now the rescuers who had parachuted into icy Arctic waters to save two Inuit hunters were in need of rescue themselves.

At one point, much of Canada’s search-and-rescue assets were tied up on this single incident. After one futile effort to get another aircraft to the scene, a rescue co-ordinator concedes, “We’ve used up everything.”

But even that wasn’t enough.

Incident logs and more than 130 audio recordings obtained by the Star under Access to Information show the effort to save the two hunters stretched the Canadian Forces to the limit — and beyond.

The records underscore the bravery of search-and-rescue technicians and the aircrews that took them to the scene, sometimes flying barely 150 metres above storm-tossed seas.

But they also lay bare the inadequacies of the search-and-rescue network, which would cost one SAR tech his life. Sgt. Janick Gilbert would die in the icy waters waiting for a helicopter that was on a 13-hour trek from Gander, N.L.

It’s a mission that would involve four CC-130 Hercules transport aircraft from Winnipeg, Trenton and Greenwood, N.S. A Cormorant helicopter from Gander flew a 2,700-kilometre odyssey with fuel stops in Goose Bay, Kuujjuaq, Que., and Cape Dorset, Nunavut. Even the Coast Guard icebreaker Henry Larsen — more than two days’ sailing away — was dispatched to the scene.

The audio files, involving exchanges with rescue co-ordinators, air force personnel and aircraft involved in the search, reveal frustration and growing worries. Even as the mission was unfolding, officers were asking questions about the sequence of events that had left three of their own stuck in icy waters along with the two victims, with no hope of being rescued for hours.

And they had no aircraft flying overhead to relay radio messages, leaving them in the dark about the worsening emergency. Told about the situation unfolding in the Far North, one officer bluntly mutters, “Oh s—.”

The weather was good on Oct. 26 as David Aqqiaruq and his 17-year-old son Lester set out in a small aluminum boat from the hamlet of Igloolik, in Foxe Basin off the coast of Baffin Island.

They were out to hunt walrus and soon bagged one of the big animals. But they weren’t so lucky with the weather, as the winds picked up, temperatures fell and ice began to form.

The pair had with them a SPOT beacon, a device that can be activated in an emergency to broadcast a location to officials.

9:19 p.m.

The SPOT beacon is triggered. The alert is routed to the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in Trenton, one of three centres across the nation, and the one responsible for rescues in central Canada and much of the Far North. But with no search-and-rescue aircraft based in the Arctic, everything has to respond from southern Canada.

3:50 a.m.

A Hercules transport from Winnipeg — call sign Rescue 340 — arrives on scene and finds the boat lodged in ice southeast of Igloolik, about 10 kilometres from shore. With rescuers unable to reach them from shore, a helicopter will be needed to hoist them to safety.

The RCC is asked about the possibility of using a Griffon, a utility helicopter. But the suggestion is dismissed because of the time it would take to get there from a base in southern Canada. “Even if we flew it up, a little concerned about the helo’s capabilities given current weather conditions and forecast,” says one rescue co-ordinator.

It won’t be the first time the mission is hindered by a lack of equipment.

Instead, a request is made to use a Gander-based Cormorant, a larger, more capable helicopter able to fly longer distances. But that aircraft has issues with “airframe hours and cycles,” suggesting it’s due for maintenance, so squadron officials want to send a Cormorant from Greenwood, N.S. instead.

7:54 a.m.

Those concerns are overruled with an officer declaring that “everybody is hurting.” The helo from Gander is dispatched. The flight, requiring three fuel stops, will push the endurance of the aircraft and the crew.

The chopper crew wants “top cover” for the overwater leg between Cape Dorset and Igloolik, an aircraft to accompany them in case they have to ditch. Without it, they’ll have to fly a longer route along the coast that will delay the rescue.

9:52 a.m.

At CFB Trenton, four turboprop engines spin up, speeding Rescue 323 — another Hercules — down the single runway and into the air. The plane banks north and the crew settle in for the five-hour flight.

On-board, Gilbert, 34, leads two other SAR techs, all experts in emergency medicine and outdoor survival. They are trained to jump to a scene, give life-saving aid and then sustain themselves and their victims until they can be extracted.

3:05 p.m.

Rescue 323 arrives on scene, taking the place of Rescue 340, which has already clocked almost 13 hours on this mission, including a dash to Iqaluit for more fuel.

The crew of Rescue 323 quickly spots the boat and makes contact with the son via a radio that had been dropped earlier, along with two sea rescue kits containing a life raft and provisions. The two move to the life raft but are too cold to use the other supplies.

When communication is lost with the boat 30 minutes later, worries mount.

“The SAR techs are considering jumping. We have gotten no further radio contact with the individuals in the boat and we’re worried about hypothermia. . . . Do you have any update on the helo?” the crew of Rescue 323 says, in a scratchy satellite phone link with the rescue coordination centre.

The rescue co-ordinator responds that the winds are forecast to increase, adding, “They need to be able to sustain the winds while they are in the life raft.”

“They’re OK with the wind situation and the waves on the water as well,” the aircraft crew says.

But now there’s another problem. Rescue 323 is running low on fuel.

4:17 p.m.

Now the push is to find yet more aircraft. Rescue officials ring air force staff hoping to get an Aurora long-range patrol aircraft to assist. They call 440 Squadron based in Yellowknife to ask if any Twin Otter aircraft are in the area.

Nothing is available.

In a phone call between the rescue centres in Trenton and Halifax, one officer worries that two SAR techs may become victims themselves if they jump to the scene. “My own two cents? I sure hope two doesn’t become four,” he said.

A Hercules from Greenwood is sent north to join the rescue even though it has just a few hours to go before it will be grounded for required maintenance checks, becoming in the words of one crew member, a “pumpkin.”

5:33 p.m.

Back up north, Gilbert and his colleagues weigh the risk. If they jump, they know they’ll be without the radio contact — and moral support — of an aircraft keeping watch overhead. And they know the Cormorant chopper plodding up the coast is still hours away.

But with the hunters now unresponsive, they don’t think they have a choice. With daylight dwindling, they parachute from the Hercules.

“Initially we had contact with one SAR tech. It was brief and then it cut out,” the Hercules crew tells the rescue coordination centre after the jump.

“We have seen strobe lights in the water . . . They are still some distance and they are working toward each other by the looks of it but unable to contact them on any frequency,” the crew says, as their plane turns for Iqaluit. The pilots are nearing the legal limit of their duty day and don’t think they’ll get back.

Below, the SAR techs are fighting for their lives.

One has been able to swim to the raft with the hunters and climbs aboard. The second SAR tech tries swimming to the raft but gives up when he can’t fight the waves any longer. He deploys his own one-man life raft, climbs in and starts bailing water.

High winds blew Gilbert off course during the jump and he has become separated from the others.

The SAR techs had agreed that upon landing they would activate one personal locator beacon to indicate they were OK; two if they needed help.

After the jump, one beacon was detected, as planned.

Then from the Arctic darkness comes an electronic cry for help. A second beacon is picked up by satellites, indicating the rescue has gone awry.

6:53 p.m.

The worried calls now start from 8 Wing Trenton, home base for the SAR techs. Told of the plight of the three SAR techs, their deputy commander responds bluntly, “Holy s—.”

“Are they actually on ice or in the water,” Maj. Colin Duncan says in a telephone conversation with the rescue co-ordinator.

“I don’t know. The water there was slushy water. They were in open water for a while . . . they were in the water swimming toward each other,” the RCC officer responds.

“Oh man,” Duncan responds.

“The SAR techs took the decision to jump. We agreed.. . . Now we have the situation with the two beacons going off. We have no idea what is going on,” the RCC says.

With his men in the water, Duncan urges action.

“I think if we’ve got guys in the water and we’ve lost communications with the boat, we absolutely need to get people on top,” Duncan says.

But at this point, the three SAR techs might as well be on the moon. The Cormorant is still two hours away.

In the blunt assessment of the rescue co-ordinate centre, “They are on their own.”

Despite the “emergency situation,” there is no aircraft to provide cover for the SAR techs. Nor is there an aircraft to accompany the Cormorant on its overwater leg. The Hercules from Greenwood is still hours away.

7:46 p.m.

In the Cormorant, aircraft commander Capt. Aaron Noble and his crew make their own heroic decision. They forgo the safer, shoreline-hugging route and point their big yellow chopper across the expanse of open water from Cape Dorset.

“We will be doing what we can to get these guys out of the water,” the chopper crew tells the RCC. “We’re proceeding direct at this time.”

9:24 p.m.

Rescue 915 arrives after a marathon flight up the Atlantic seaboard. The crew is nearly at the end of their duty day. And the tough work is just beginning.

At the rescue coordination centre, nerves are on edge. The Cormorant has descended out of the clouds to a scene of winking strobe lights — each one marking a life raft tossed about by massive waves. Winds gusting more than 80 km/h buffet the chopper. Blowing snow cuts visibility.

They first find a 10-man life raft, with a SAR tech and the two hunters. Their aluminum boat has sunk.

The Cormorant creeps forward in the darkness and the crew spots another 10-man life raft, its strobe light winking, but this one is empty.

Next they find the SAR tech who had deployed his single-man raft.

Then another empty 10-man raft.

The next flashing light is a strobe attached to an empty helmet.

Finally, a reflection catches their eye. They think it’s a glint off the ice.

“We stopped and it wasn’t, unfortunately,” Noble would later tell the RCC.

It’s Gilbert. He’s been in the water for five hours.

10:50 p.m.

Rescue 915 breaks the silence with an update — they’re inbound to Igloolik and the news is not good.

“We have all three SAR techs on board. We have two civilians on-board. We have . . . one possible black. We’re going to need an ambulance immediately at the airport,” the chopper crew tells the RCC via satellite phone.

“Black” is the code used to describe a victim in mortal danger and the early indication from the chopper is that it’s a SAR tech.

1:08 a.m.

The rescue centre gets word from the health centre in Igloolik that they were unable to resuscitate the SAR tech, now identified as Gilbert.

The mission is wound down.

The Hercules from Greenwood and a second one dispatched from Trenton a couple of hours earlier are told to return to base.

And the questions start.

Military investigators would later say Gilbert was found unresponsive in the cold, slushy water.

An initial report concluded that the tether meant to hold his one-man raft to his life preserver had separated and his raft had gone missing.

And it has found that his dry suit — meant to ward off hypothermia — was “not optimized” for use on the Hercules aircraft. Investigators offered no explanation of what was wrong with the suit.

The investigation continues with a focus on the equipment provided to search-and-rescue technicians and the regulations governing rescue activities.

As well, an internal board of inquiry is underway to examine Gilbert’s death and what measures should be taken to minimize the risk of it happening again.

“The (Canadian Forces) is committed to giving full consideration to any recommendations, and to learn the most we can from Sgt. Gilbert’s sacrifice,” the defence department said in a statement to the Star this week.

“Danger is inherent in most of our operations, and we do all we can to minimize and mitigate those risks to our men and women — a process which is supported by diligent investigation of flight safety incidents and accidents so that we can learn from them, and prevent similar occurrences in the future,” the statement said.

Gilbert, a native of Baie-Comeau, was buried Nov. 5 during a service at the Valcartier Garrison.

In a statement, his wife, Mélisa Lesquir paid her own tribute.

“My husband gave his life so that others may live. We are extremely proud of him.”

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