Training, luck guided Resolute Bay air disaster response: military
“We just reacted with our training"
YELLOWKNIFE — Major Steve Wright was ready to bite into a “juicy hamburger” on Aug. 20, his first since arriving in Resolute Bay for this past August’s Operation Nanook, when, looking out the windows of the dining hall at the Polar Continental Shelf Program’s residence, he saw the camp’s firetrucks speed by.
Maj. Wright dropped his hamburger, headed down to Op Nanook’s operations room — a nearly windowless room crammed of maps, telephones and desks for various branches of the Canadian Armed Forces involved in Op Nanook.
Maj. Wright wouldn’t stop to eat again for many hours.
Firefighters and their specialized firefighting trucks had headed out at the first news that an aircraft was down — “you have to get out the door and try to get information en route,” because every minute counts.
The first thing Maj. Wright was to reach for his telephone when he reached the Operations Room.
That’s how Maj. Wright, attached to the Joint Task Force North in Yellowknife, recalls those minutes after First Air flight 6560 crashed into the hillside near the airport in Resolute Bay at about 12:50 p.m. on Aug. 20.
Maj. Wright called the airport tower and airport manager to make sure the crash had really occurred, before unleashing what he calls the “whole of government” response to the crash, which would involve the 500 members of the military on site for Op Nanook, others flown in from CFB Trenton, the Transportation Safety Board, the RCMP as well as firefighters, Canadian Rangers, police and nurses from Resolute Bay.
There was no panic at the Operations Room: “we just reacted with our training.”
Everyone at Op Nanook had already practiced their emergency response with minor event, a fuel tank explosion, earlier that month— and then fine-tuned their response much larger major air disaster timed to start Aug. 22 as the central military exercise for 2011.
Everyone was “ready to go” after the news of the crash was confirmed, Maj. Wright said.
Sirens alerted everyone in the camp who returned to their posts.
Maj. Wright, who had spent the year before Op Nanook developing the scenario for the major air disaster exerecise, knew the crash of an aircraft was the “most likely” disaster to occur in Resolute Bay.
According to the planned simulation, on Aug. 22, “Nuna,” a Canadian charter aircraft carrying an international expedition with 40 people on board, was to crash into the nearby plateau, about 13 kilometres from Camp Nanook, leaving 15 dead and 25 injured.
“Immarq,” a cargo plane with four people on board, was to see no survivors as it crash-landed in Resolute Lake.
The simulation would have used already existing crashed planes in Resolute Bay and member of the armed forces made up as victims.
The Aug. 20 crash took place closer to the airport than the planned Aug. 22 simulation, but Maj.Wright said everyone immediately adjusted their actions to deal with the actual event.
And that presented immediate challenges of its own.
While an imaginary “canyon” was supposed to slow down response to the Aug. 22 mock MAJAID, getting to the crash site on Aug. 20 wasn’t easy.
Fire trucks had to drive up to a hill, and then firefighters had to run down the hill, carrying fire extinguishers as they navigated through wet, boggy land, to get to the crash scene.
While the simulated disaster was to play out over 36 hours in real-time, the response time to the Aug. 20 crash turned out to be much more rapid.
Firefighters were on the scene within 20 minutes, Maj. Wright said.
There they found the three survivors waiting for them on a rock.
A medical team followed by helicopter within minutes, picking up Gabrielle Pelky, Nicole Williamson and Robin Wyllie and taking them back to the medical unit, which was being set up to carry out triage of the injured.
Search and rescue techicians, a doctor and other first responders walked a line through the crash site, checking for more survivors.
By that point, Maj. Wright had the list of everyone on the jet.
But within the hour, they knew there had only been three survivors.
Firefighters armed with fire extinguishers gathered from around the camp continued battle the fire on the remnants of the 737C-200.
At 9 p.m. that night, Wright stopped to take stock about what happened and what still needed to be done.
What had unrolled wasn’t like the MAJAID scenario: the actual crash took place much closer, with a much more compressed emergency response timeline.
They’d planned for an even worse-case scenario. The Aug. 20 crash was at least better because it took place within view of the airport and the Op Nanook camp.
Today he says “it was good we were there and responded with everything we had.”
In his planning for the scheduled MAJAID, Sgt. Wright wanted to “see where the information goes” and that the “right resources” were in place.
Information flowed well, important because those involved in the disaster response often receive conflicting and confusing information.
And luck was with them that day: luck that Op Nanook was nearby and luck that enabled three of the passengers to survive.
Asked if the crash affect him personally, of course, it did, Maj. Wright said, but “it’s how you understand it and deal with it.”
A couple of days after the crash, Maj. Wright went up to the crash site, to see what it looked like for himself, so he wouldn’t imagine it as the “worst nightmare” possible.
By that point cleanup was underway.
Maj. Wright could see tents there and could say to himself “this is how it was.”
The Arctic is still a potentially dangerous place to “live, work or play,” he cautions.
The Aug. 20 crash drove home his conviction that an emergency requires every person to be prepared and to respond.
His advice: remember when you hop on an airplane flying over the North, dress warmly and bring along a sleeping bag as carry-on luggage because those could save your life. The Canadian Forces will be there to help you, but they might not get there in time — and that goes for any place in Canada, and not just in the Arctic, he said.
Next summer, Op Nanook will not take place again in Resolute Bay, but in the Mackenzie Delta and Hudson Bay.
However, the disaster scenario has not yet been set, Maj. Wright said.