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Families gather to mark Resolute crash tragedy

Aug. 20, 2012, Resolute, Nunavut – Sorrow and remembrance hung over a newly built memorial near a tiny Arctic hamlet Monday as the families of 12 people killed in a fiery plane crash gathered on the pebbled tundra where the jet went down one year ago.


August 20, 2012
By Bob Weber and Chris Purdy

Aug. 20, 2012, Resolute, Nunavut – Sorrow and remembrance hung over a newly built memorial near a tiny Arctic hamlet Monday as the families of 12 people killed in a fiery plane crash gathered on the pebbled tundra where the jet went down one year ago.

"Just a simple few prayers said and we'll say our goodbyes,''
said Aziz Kheraj, a hotel owner in Resolute, Nunavut, who lost
friends, employees and a six-year-old granddaughter when the First
Air 737 that he had chartered flew into a hill near the airport.

"Every day's a tough day. Every day is different. Some days are
harder than others, but all you do is put your head down and plug
away. Not much else one can do.''

The pain of the crash spread from this dot on the northernmost
shores of the Northwest Passage like a stain across the whole
country. The victims were from the Maritimes, Winnipeg, Edmonton,
Yellowknife and across the North.

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Many of their family members flew to Resolute, sponsored by First
Air, to spend the weekend creating the monument to their memory – a
concrete pedestal adorned with a bronze plaque.

First Air also plans to hold a private ceremony in Yellowknife
for the families and co-workers of the four crew members who died on
flight 6560.

The company said its 1,000 employees across the Arctic will
observe a moment of silence at 11:42 a.m., the exact moment the
plane struck the hillside.

The impact split the jet into three pieces and flung debris and
flaming wreckage across the rugged terrain.

Three passengers miraculously survived: the dead girl's
seven-year-old sister, Gabrielle Pelky, and geologists Nicole
Williamson and Robin Wyllie.

"The memories are still full of raw emotion for everyone…enough to make a grown man cry,'' Wyllie, 49, wrote in a letter
published Friday in a northern newspaper.

"Not a day goes by that we do not recall this terrible event and
the tragedy it inflicted upon so many lives.''

Residents who heard the loud bang and spotted the flames and
smoke that followed rushed on ATVs to the crash site to look for
possible survivors. They were joined by a large military contingent
that happened to be in the area on annual manoeuvres that ironically
were to include a mock plane crash.

The army's After Action report on the rescue effort, obtained by
The Canadian Press under access to information legislation, gives
officers on the site high marks for their response.

A military helicopter was dispatched to the scene within 12
minutes of the crash, the report says. A search team from that
chopper and one from the Coast Guard found the three survivors and
transported them to a military field hospital that had been set up
for the exercise.

The survivors were airlifted by a military plane to Iqaluit. They
were later sent to hospitals in Ottawa.

"Both other government departments and Canadian Forces personnel
responded swiftly and professionally to the First Air crash,'' the
report concludes.

But there is no mention of the cause of the crash or the
military's role at the airport when it happened.

Although transport investigators are still looking into the
cause, several lawsuits lay at least partial blame on the military
for taking control over the airport that day.

The small airport is normally an uncontrolled airspace with no
air traffic control service. Pilots navigate themselves onto the
runway.

The suits detail how the military made an agreement with Nav
Canada, Canada's civilian air traffic authority, to establish a
temporary air traffic control tower and guide in all aircraft.

The lawsuits claim there were several planes coming into the
airport, but the military did not have enough people on duty to
handle the traffic. They allege those working the tower were not
briefed or properly trained to navigate civilian planes.

The suits also detail how soldiers were in communication with the
crew of First Air 6560 and gave the plane permission to land.

None of the allegations has been proven in court and statements
of defence have not been filed.

The Transportation Safety Board revealed in an interim report
that the crew was preparing to land. The plane's landing gear was
down and locked and the flaps on its wings were open.

The report said the plane's two pilots wouldn't have been able to
see the runway because of fog, cloud and drizzling rain, so they
tried to land using navigation instruments.

They aborted the landing two seconds before crashing into a hill.
The plane was 1.6 kilometres from the runway.

The stunned survivors found each other after the crash. The RCMP
said Williamson followed the sound of a crying girl and found
Gabrielle sitting on a rock. Wyllie wrote that the three of them,
all with broken bones, limped away from the wreckage and were soon
found by military firefighters.

Over the next few days, experts removed the remains of the dead
and studied the wreckage. The Rangers reserve unit provided security
for the area when hungry polar bears approached. The chartered jet,
in addition to people, had been carrying 2,000 kilograms of food to
the isolated community.

An official with the transportation board was unable to provide
an update on the crash investigation, but earlier said staff were
still looking at the plane's navigational equipment. They also
planned to study whether the military's control tower interfered
with the landing.

An earlier news report said the plane was not equipped with a
terrain awareness warning system (TAWS), but had an older version of
the equipment.

Last month, the federal government announced new regulations
requiring all private turbine-powered and commercial planes with six
or more passenger seats to have TAWS. Operators have two years to
install the systems.

The transportation board said it has no idea when its final
report into the crash will be complete.
"Like the survivors, we look forward to understanding what happened one year ago," Kris Dolinki, president of First Air, said
in a statement. "We will never forget that event of that day and
the lives and legacies of those who passed will remain in our
thoughts forever."

Wyllie declined an interview but wrote at length in his letter
that air travel is essential for life in the North.

He said passengers need to smile and thank their flight crew each
time they step out of a plane. “These people risk their lives on
our behalf every day of the year to deliver us safely to our
friends, families and colleagues. They bring us the mail and freight
that make our modern lifestyle possible in the North.

"It is appropriate to remember the dedication and sacrifice of
the ones who did not make it home."