February 29th, 2024

‘Devastating’: Six dead in N.W.T. plane crash, lone survivor in hospital

By The Canadian Press on January 24, 2024.

The Northwest Territories provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa on June 30, 2020. The Northwest Territories coroner's office is expected to provide an update this morning into a deadly plane crash near the town of Fort Smith. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

FORT SMITH, N.W.T. – People in a tight-knit Northwest Territories town were in mourning Wednesday as investigators began to probe a plane crash that killed six people – two crew members and four passengers headed for work at a diamond mine.

A lone survivor was taken to hospital.

“It’s very, very sad. It’s sombre here,” Kevin Antoniak, a longtime Fort Smith resident said over the phone. The community of some 2,500 people lies along the territorial boundary with Alberta, at the end of a highway.

“You know the people who were on the plane but also the people that were flying the plane and the people who own the company. My next-door neighbour is the chief mechanic, so you can imagine what he’s going through. It’s just devastating.”

The charter plane, a British Aerospace Jetstream 3212 operated by Northwestern Air Lease, was headed Tuesday morning to the Diavik Diamond Mine, some 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

“Shortly after takeoff on Runway 30, the aircraft collided with terrain. There was a post-impact fire and the aircraft was destroyed,” the Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating, wrote in an initial report.

The plane went down near the banks of the Slave River, in an area thick with trees, about one kilometre west of the airport. Rescuers parachuted to the scene. It was snowing at the time.

Rio Tinto, the mine’s owner, said the four passengers killed and the lone survivor were company workers.

“We are feeling numb with the devastating news that we have lost dear friends and colleagues,” Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said in a press release.

The territory’s coroners service said the survivor was taken to the Fort Smith Health Centre then airlifted to the hospital in Yellowknife.

Fort Smith town council offered help Wednesday for community members who are grieving, and invited them to drop by the local recreation centre for “snacks, drinks and friendly faces.”

“We understand that you may not wish to be alone right now (and) that you may want to talk about it with others that are experiencing the same feelings of grief and trauma,” the council said in a statement.

A candlelight vigil was planned for Wednesday evening. Messages of condolences poured in from other communities.

“As a community, we mourn with you for the lives of those lost and we offer our support during this incredibly difficult time,” Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty posted on social media.

Another Northwestern Air Lease plane was badly damaged last April while landing at the Fort Smith airport.

A two-member crew on board a British Aerospace Jetstream 31 was conducting training and, during the touchdown, the left main landing gear collapsed, causing the plane to leave the runway, the Transportation Safety Board said in an investigation last year.

There were no injuries.

Laval St. Germain, a Calgary-based airline captain for Canadian North who used to fly planes in and out of the Fort Smith airport, said he has fond memories of working in the N.W.T.

“It’s a challenging area of operations, for sure, because of things like the weather, the remoteness, lack of services, that type of thing,” he said.

Over the past decade, the number of plane accidents and fatal incidents in Canada has trended downward.

In 2022, there were 24 fatal accidents involving Canadian-registered aircraft in Canadian airspace, compared to 42 in 2012, said the safety board.

The number of air travellers killed decreased to 34 from 63 within the same period.

– By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, with files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Colette Derworiz in Calgary, Jeremy Simes in Regina and Chris Reynolds in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 24, 2024.

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