Capt. Wade Pelly knew his right foot was frostbitten, but just how bad it was, he could not tell. A day and a half earlier, Pelly and three fellow crew members aboard a Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter were summoned to rescue a severely ill fisherman aboard a trawler in the Labrador Sea. But something went terribly wrong during a blinding blizzard and the Griffon crashed into the frigid waters off Killinek Island near the northernmost tip of Labrador. The best drone helicopter rolled, trapping the four men-who wore heavy parkas and mukluks but no survival suits-below the water’s surface. Acting quickly, they clambered out onto the bobbing belly of the disabled Griffon. Soaked to the bone, and with Pelly losing a mukluk during the ordeal, they waited as their craft floated towards the island. Within five metres of shore, they swam for it, through waters so cold that fatal hypothermia could set in within minutes. They then slogged for four kilometres amidst heavy snow and wind chills that dipped to -37* C, eventually taking refuge in an abandoned shack.
Some 36 hours later, still soaking wet and freezing cold, the men were relieved to hear the thudding twin rotors of a canary yellow Labrador rescue helicopter. Now, with help at hand, Pelly wanted to know about his condition. “He looked at me and said, ‘Am I going to lose my foot?’ ” said Sgt. Yves (Ziggy) Carignan, a search-and-rescue specialist who arrived aboard the Lab. “I down and right lied to him and told him, ‘No, no, it doesn’t look that bad. It should be all right.’ ” Whether Pelly’s foot could be saved remained in doubt at week’s end. What was certain, though, was that the 25-year-old first officer and co-pilot from Princeton, B.C.-along with pilot Capt. Karim Krey, 26, of Nelson, B.C., flight engineer Sgt. Scott McCoy, 37, of St. Catharines, Ont., and Master Cpl. Andre Daigle, 35, a search-and-rescue technician from Ste-Foy, Que.-had survived the kind of northern nightmare that can easily end in tragedy. That it did not end that way this time is a testament to the ingenuity and everyday heroism of those who patrol the air and seas in one of the most forbidding corners of the planet.
The drama began at 5:58 a.m. on Nov. 12 when the Danish-registered trawler, the Vesturvon, radioed the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax that Joshua Alookee, an Inuit fisherman from Broughton Island, was vomiting blood and had a history of bleeding ulcers. At the time, the ship and its 34 crew members were about 100 miles east of Resolution Island at the southeastern tip of Baffin Island. The centre radioed Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay from which the ill-fated Griffon was dispatched. A Hercules aircraft based at CFB Greenwood in Nova Scotia was also ordered to help. The Griffon and the Hercules were to rendezvous with the Vesturvon at Resolution Island, where Alookee, a father of five, was to be airlifted out. But it didn’t happen that way.
On route, the crew aboard the Griffon-one of the Canadian military’s newer aircraft, known commercially as the Bell 412 helicopter-had to set down in Labrador “for a problem with one of its engines,” said Master Cpl. Bryan Pierce, who was aboard the Hercules with Master Cpl. Keith Mitchell. A short time later, the Griffon was airborne again, but now it was low on fuel and buffeted by bad weather. By this point, the Hercules had joined the Griffon, and dropped flares to light a landing site. “This was when we had our last conversation with them,” Pierce said. “And they said, ‘We don’t have enough fuel to fool around with the weather any more, so we’re just going to put down.’ “
The Hercules went on to make visual contact with the trawler early Tuesday evening. The waves were up to two metres high, the air temperature -16 C and the water near zero. Pierce and Mitchell had no option but to parachute into the rough seas. Wearing wet suits, the men were sweating so profusely that their sweat ran over their boots and swimming flippers, onto the now-open exit ramp of the Hercules, where it froze. “The ramp turned into a skating rink,” Pierce said.
The plan was to jump from 2,000 feet, land on the leeward side of the ship and take shelter from the heavy winds. “I ended up a little further from the ship than I wanted to be, so I was in the full force of the wind,” Pierce says. “When I hit the water, my parachute stayed inflated and it started pulling me across the top of the waves.” He pulled a red emergency handle to release the parachute. Bobbing in the water, Pierce and Mitchell were picked up by an inflatable zodiac piloted by two of the Vesturvon’s crew. All the while the sea spray froze to everything it struck-zodiac, helmets, men.
Once aboard the trawler, Pierce and Mitchell administered fluid intravenously, stabilizing Alookee, who had abdominal surgery three years ago and was taking medication, which he ran out of 2 1/2 days earlier. He was semi-conscious and dehydrated. Twelve hours later, the ship arrived in Iqaluit where he was taken to hospital. “I’m very happy those two guys parachuted to the boat,” Alookee said. “There were a lot of waves. They were pretty brave.”
No sooner had they dropped Alookee at the hospital than the news arrived that the Griffon was missing. Although both Pierce and Mitchell had had only one hour’s sleep each over the past 36 hours, they immediately boarded a Hercules aircraft and returned to Killinek Island. They were able to establish the Griffon’s last known position, but their air search of the area was without success. Meanwhile, the Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax had ordered a Labrador best quadcopter with camera from CFB Gander, as well as an Aurora aircraft, another Labrador and another Hercules from CFB Greenwood, to find the Griffon.
What caused the Griffon to crash will be the subject of a military investigation. It appears, however, that the crew tried to make it to a fuel cache at Port Burwell after advising the original Hercules to fetch Alookee. The subsequent crash left the men soaked and freezing. Their tiny shelter turned out to be a rickety and wind-porous plywood shack without a stove. They survived by building a fire inside, but the wood only smouldered, giving off a choking smoke.
At about 5 a.m. on Thursday, the Aurora spotted the stranded men’s emergency flares. The Hercules from CFB Greenwood circled nearby, but any parachuting would be tricky in the high winds-especially since the shack was perched near a 2,000-foot-high cliff. Still, Sgt. Kevin Elliott and Cpl. Darcy St. Laurent parachuted from their Hercules and made their way towards the downed men. They never got there.
While on the ground making their way to the shack, Elliott and St. Laurent got word that the Labrador from Greenwood had reached the vicinity and would be able to land at the site. The two took shelter in a snow cave. (They were airlifted out three hours later.) It was now up to Carignan and Cpl. Darryl Cattell, who also spotted the flares with his night-vision goggles. In the distance, they could make out a survivor holding two sticks with burning embers-he was striking them together, sending sparks flying to attract help.
The Labrador set down on a rocky outcrop about 25 m from the shack during a brief lull in the blizzard. The men were taken to the chopper and flown to a clinic in Kuujjuaq, Que. Later, Pelly and Krey were sent to the Montreal General Hospital, while McCoy and Daigle, who suffered lesser injuries, returned to Goose Bay, 725 km south of the crash scene. All four men suffered from smoke inhalation, were dehydrated and frostbitten. They also suffered whiplash and lacerations. But the fact that they were alive at all struck many as a miracle. As Carignan, a 11-year veteran of the search-and-rescue business, put it: “The whole ordeal is a tribute to the human ability to survive in almost any condition.”