Boxtop 22 commemorative cairn: “A place of memory and healing.”
“David. Marc. Monty. Paul. Richard. Tony. And the two outside – tend to them first!”
Twenty-five years after the fatal crash of a CC-130 Hercules from 435 Transport Squadron in Edmonton, which was conducting the Boxtop 22 resupply flight to Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut, Captain (retired) Wilma de Groot, once again called the roll.
Every hour or two after the Hercules crashed 16 kilometres from Alert on October 30, 1991, as 12 of the 14 survivors huddled half-frozen in the shattered tail section of the transport aircraft, Captain de Groot, a physician, called out the names of her fellow survivors to ensure they were still awake and had not succumbed to the cold.
They endured more than 30 hours in a brutal storm on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island that brought high winds and temperatures of -20C to -30C with extreme wind chill – all in the 24-hour darkness of the Arctic winter. The first two overland rescue efforts were called back due to weather conditions and dangerous terrain and, although a search and rescue Hercules from 413 Squadron in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, arrived over the site after about eight hours, the search and rescue (SAR) technicians were unable to parachute in because of the high winds and lack of visibility due to cloud cover. When they finally risked the jump, almost all their equipment and medical supplies were whipped away by the wind and disappeared. But they made do with what they had, offering shelter, assistance and comfort to the survivors. Shortly thereafter, another group of SAR techs jumped in, followed by a third overland expedition, carrying supplies and equipment.
The survivors and six SAR techs were flown from the site to the station onboard a CH-135 Twin Huey helicopter that had been transported north onboard another Hercules. The remaining SAR techs, the overland rescuers and the bodies of the dead were brought out by American HH-160 Pave Hawk helicopters from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
Four people died almost immediately from injuries sustained during the crash: Captain Judy Trépanier, Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, Warrant Officer Robert Grimsley and Master Corporal Roland Pitre. Captain John Couch, the Herc’s pilot, answered the roll call for several hours before finally succumbing to hypothermia – after doing everything in his power to help ensure the survival of the other men and women.
Captain de Groot called out the names one last time at Alert when all the survivors had been rescued and were gathered together in the station’s dining room, which had been turned into a makeshift medical facility. It was the first and last time all 13 were together; they were then flown south to medical facilities to begin the long process of healing.
She never thought she’d call those names again, but on October 30, 2016, seven survivors and their families, families of three who perished, as well as rescue personnel and a number of people who were in Alert on that terrible day, gathered at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, to mark the 25th anniversary of the crash and unveil a Boxtop 22 commemorative cairn.
At the end of the private luncheon before the ceremony, the survivors were asked to stand. “Call the roll, Wilma,” came a voice from one of the tables. Captain de Groot stood and, as she once again called the roll, one by one the survivors in attendance stood and answered her call with “Here!”
“The two outside” – Ms. Sue Hillier and Mr. Bob Thompson – could not be brought into the shelter of the crashed Hercules’ tail because their injuries were too extreme for them to be moved. The others built a shelter around them and, against all odds, they survived. Captain de Groot’s words to “tend to them first” echoed what she told the search and rescue technicians when they finally reached the survivors in the tail section.
“It was far more emotional than I expected it to be. Seeing the people stand up when I said their name was actually very, very emotional, and I didn’t expect that at all,” said Captain de Groot. “I was told by someone who was at Alert at that time that I did the roll call when we were in the dining room and they thought that we were delirious and didn’t know where we were. And no, it was a very deliberate [act] – like today. ‘We are now back in the same place together. Who’s still here?’”
The families of Master Warrant Officer Tom Jardine, Warrant Office Grimsley and Master Corporal Pitre attended the luncheon and ceremony.
Master Warrant Officer Tony Cobden – the last Boxtop 22 survivor still serving in the Canadian Armed Forces – Captain (retired) Wilma de Groot, Captain (retired) Richard Dumoulin, Captain (retired) David Meace (who held the rank of master corporal at the time of the crash), Master Seaman (retired) Douglas “Monty” Montgomery, Master Warrant Officer (retired) Marc Tremblay and Sergeant (retired) Paul West were also there.
Also surviving the crash were Mr. Robert Thomson, Ms. Susan Hillier, Lieutenant Joe Bales, Lieutenant Michael Moore, and Master Corporal Mario Ellefsen, and Private Bill Vance, who passed away in May 2002.