February 22nd, 2024

‘I refused to accept what I was witnessing’: Ranger on response to N.W.T. plane crash

By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press on January 25, 2024.

Community members gather and hold a vigil for the six people killed in a plane crash, in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, on Wednesday, January 24, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

FORT SMITH, N.W.T. – A mayor overcome with emotion. A rescuer struggling with the sight of a deadly plane crash. Church bells ringing for every life lost.

The fallout from disaster that killed six people and left one in hospital continued to reverberate in Fort Smith, a town of some 2,200 on the Northwest Territories’ boundary with Alberta where everyone knows everyone.

Sgt. Gordon Rothnie, a Canadian Army ranger who rushed to the crash site by snowmobile along with four colleagues in a rescue attempt, said he was hoping for the best.

“From my perspective, you go in with a lot of optimism to assist in any way you can, do the best you can, depending on the circumstances. And it was a difficult situation,” Rothnie said in an interview Thursday.

“I refused to accept what I was witnessing. Even going to bed that night I was still wanting to search.”

Rothnie, 50, said the connection he has to the community makes this an intimate loss.

“When something like this happens you’re connected. It’s not like you’re anonymous. There’s always some connection,” he said.

“You’re not impartial. There’s an intimacy. Your children played together or you knew them, so I would say the painful part is for the loved ones who, one moment, you have someone dear to you and then they’re just taken away.”

The charter plane had just taken off from Fort Smith and was en route to the Diavik Diamond Mine on Tuesday morning, when it hit the ground and caught fire.

The territorial coroner’s office has not identified the victims of the crash, but some family members have.

Clayton Balsillie says his sister Diane Balsillie was among those killed.

She and three others who died worked at the mine. Two crew members with Northwestern Air Lease were also killed.

One mine worker survived and was airlifted to hospital in Yellowknife.

The Transportation Safety Board is investigating and released photos of the crash site Thursday.

The pictures show the plane severely damaged, its fuselage tattered, lying in a heavily wooded area just west of town.

Fort Smith’s mayor said he was unable to speak at a Wednesday vigil because he was overcome with emotion.

“It came time for me to say something and I looked at all the people and I just broke down and couldn’t do it,” Fred Daniels recalled Thursday.

“My deputy mayor was there and I had to pass it on to her. I just couldn’t do it.”

Daniels said he’s been a politician for a long time and had thought he was strong enough to deal with anything. He is urging residents to seek counselling and not carry the burden alone.

“It’s going to take a while to do this. It’s not going to go away. Are we ever going to find closure? How do we find closure for those families?,” Daniels said, choking back tears.

The Anglican Church in the town is planning to ring its bells every morning for six minutes – one minute for each person killed.

– with files from Jeremy Simes in Regina and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2024.

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