Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad
Waiting to let go

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Fort Norman (Jan 13/03) - Eleven hundred feet up the side of a mountain, on a rocky ledge far from human sadness and pain, a young girl's last testament to happier times lies unforgotten in the wreckage of a shattered airplane.

On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2001, Lindsay Andrew, 11, and her older sister Ashley, 18, were on their way back home to Tulita from Fort Good Hope after spending Christmas holidays with relatives.

They would never get there. The plane they were flying in, a Cessna 172 flown by 23-year-old Dana Wentzel, and with another passenger aboard, Hay River fiddling sensation Kole Crook, crashed on a hillside 50 kilometres south of Fort Good Hope.

All on board the Ursus Aviation flight perished. Four days later their bodies were recovered, along with Crook's travel bag and his treasured fiddle -- an instrument which promised to raise the roof at the New Year's party in Tulita before he died.

One item left behind was a suitcase belonging to Lindsay. Inside, her father Frederick believes, are photographs taken over the holiday, showing the girls laughing and smiling with their mom, grandma and aunties as they enjoyed Christmas dinner.

Frederick Andrew says the thought of those precious photographs lying in the dark and cold, amid snow and debris, is too much to bear.

Andrew wants those photos -- along with the rest of their personal belongings -- back so he can finally let his daughters go.

"It's been a year since New Year's Eve and I just can't say goodbye to them," says Andrew, at home in Tulita. "I just want some closure and to get my girls' stuff out of there."

His people come from the Shutoagotine (Mountain Dene). It is their tradition that when a loved one dies, all their personal effects are disposed of save one or two cherished mementoes.

Andrew said he was told by Tulita RCMP that their personal effects would be removed and returned to him last summer but he's still waiting. He is also waiting for answers to the cause of the crash.

"I was kind of happy looking forward to remove their luggage but so far nothing has happened. I haven't heard anything," says Andrew.

Tulita RCMP detachment commander Cpl. Don Halina says it was a misunderstanding. He feels bad that Andrew has had to wait so long but removing the luggage is outside of RCMP jurisdiction.

"It was our understanding that it was going to be removed last year but if it's a case that they can't be removed until the Transport Safety Board presents their ruling, then obviously that's why it wasn't removed," says Halina.

Pilot error

On Jan. 6, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released its report on the crash. It places much of the blame on the pilot, who was warned prior to the accident that weather conditions were deteriorating.

Wentzel had already encountered marginal weather en route from Norman Wells to Fort Good Hope which caused ice to build up on the plane's airframe and windshield. It took him 30 minutes longer than usual to reach the community.

At 1:15 p.m., after de-icing, Wentzel set out from Fort Good Hope with his three passengers. As he was taxiing along the runway, the pilot of a Douglas DC4 radioed over and advised him that the weather wasn't getting any better. He took off anyway.

At 3 p.m., the plane was declared overdue and a search began. A CC-130 Hercules detected an emergency locator signal around midnight but it wasn't until 40 hours after the accident that rescuers located the crash site.

The TSB report says Crook, sitting in the right front seat, was fatally injured by the impact. The pilot and the other two passengers "survived the impact with non-life threatening injuries, but succumbed to hypothermia."

Unlike the girls' family, Crook's received at least most of the items he was carrying on board the plane. The violin was given to his younger brother, Lance. But like Frederick Andrew, Crook's father, Clell, is still searching for answers.

"We should have a search-and-rescue team up here in the North," says Clell. "They came out of Winnipeg, and then a chopper out of Cold Lake, finally."

The mandate for aviation search and rescue, excluding the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, is carried out by the Canadian Forces Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Trenton, Ont., which can dispatch planes from various bases across Canada. Many people, including the families, believe the pilot and the girls may have survived had they been found earlier -- moreover, had the search been initiated from a base equipped with long-range CC-130 search-and-rescue Hercules aircraft in the NWT.

Clell says the family hasn't decided whether they will sue Ursus Aviation, but does believe they company should be held accountable.

In the meantime, he is still awaiting word when a public inquiry is going to be held.

Picking up the pieces

In response to questions sent by fax, Ursus owner Blair Jensen writes, "The tragedy has made it hard for us to carry on but we can only imagine how it must be for the families and hope that time will heal the pain."

The letter also states that the company is now making it a practice to hire "higher time" pilots, although Jensen maintains that Wentzel had three years experience and would have met their new requirements.

"We do not know which wrong decisions he made but the result was a lot of pain for many people. For this we are very sorry," Jensen continues.

As for a public inquiry, deputy chief coroner Cathy Menard says there will be one but is uncertain when it will get started. She also agrees with Crook's father that the length of time it took to locate the crash site is troublesome.

"People don't seem to realize when we're talking search and rescue, you could say, 'I'm going to rescue that person,' but if it takes 12 hours to get to the site, and it's minus temperatures, are we even talking rescue any more?" says Menard.

As for Andrew, the wait for his daughters' belongings will carry on until at least the summer when insurance adjusters will come and visit the site to decide how to remove the plane and its contents.

"I want some closure once and for all," says Andrew. "I don't want to keep on and on. It's too hard already."