First Air victims’ bodies to be handed over to families soon

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RCMP Supt. Howard Eaton is shown speaking with reporters in Iqaluit Monday after the crash of First Air flight 6560 on Saturday. ‹ Photo by Chris Windeyer/Nunatsiaq News

Nicole Williamson heard crying, made her way over to Gabrielle Pelky and walked her to safety after First Air Flight 6560 crashed in Resolute Bay Saturday.

The RCMP said Williamson, 23, and Pelky, 7, were found sitting on a rock near the crash site moments after the plane went down, bodies and debris around them.

Williamson’s Ottawa-based family said they are feeling “very lucky” that she survived the crash.

While the three survivors of the First Air crash — Pelky, Williamson and Robin Wyllie, 48 — were flown out of Resolute Bay for treatment, the bodies of the 12 victims in the crash remain in the North.

Investigators were still identifying remains Tuesday and expected to release the bodies to family members over the next few days. With debris and remains strewn about the site, forensic investigators have not had an easy time identifying bodies, said Sgt. Paul Solomon.

Solomon said remains were expected to be moved into a temporary morgue today. Bodies that can’t be positively identified in Resolute Bay will be flown to Ottawa for an autopsy, he said.

Once the RCMP has identified each victim, the remains will be handed over to the families, Solomon said.

First Air spokeswoman Judy Skoczylas said the airline would be talking with families to see what the company could do to help get the bodies home.

She said the airline has provided counsellors for bereaved families, friends and co-workers of those killed in the crash.

“We would be assisting the families any way we can,” Skoczylas said.

The First Air Boeing 737-200 crashed shortly before 1 p.m. local time Saturday. The plane was last heard from at 12:40 p.m. about eight kilometres from the airport.

The plane slammed into the ground, breaking into three large pieces. Debris is spread over a one-kilometre area, according to the Transportation Safety Board.

Canadian Forces members in the area were the first on the scene.

“Saturday’s tragedy was felt by all Canadians across the country and around the world,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said shortly after he met with rescuers in Resolute Bay.

“Once again, I want to extend my gratitude to all those involved in the rescue efforts, including the herculean efforts by Canadian Armed Forces personnel.”

The same day that Flight 6560 crashed in Resolute Bay, a second First Air Boeing 737-200 lost power in one engine and had to make an emergency landing shortly after taking off from Rankin Inlet.

A Transport Canada occurrence report said the plane’s crew called for emergency vehicles at the Rankin Inlet airport before landing safely. There were no injuries reported.

Pita Aatami, chairman of First Air’s board of directors and president of its parent corporation, Makivik Corp., dismissed concerns about the safety of First Air’s fleet. He said the airline follows strict national safety standards, while aircraft and crew are well-versed in northern travel.

“I’m still flying today. I don’t feel unsafe,” he said, calling Saturday crash an “unforeseen accident.”

Solomon said the RCMP expect to hand over the crash scene to the Transportation Safety Board today.

Board investigators will go through the wreckage and may fly parts of the plane to Ottawa for tests if investigators suspect there was a mechanical malfunction on the aircraft.

The plane’s two flight recorders — commonly known as black boxes — are at the board’s lab in Ottawa. The two recorders should provide investigators with at least the last 30 minutes of audio from the cockpit and 25 hours of flight data.

The board said Monday it doesn’t expect to have any preliminary information to report for at least 60 days. A final report on the crash along with any recommended regulatory changes could take a year, or possibly two years, to produce.

On Tuesday, First Air released information about the four crew members killed in Saturday’s accident.

Captain Blair Rutherford, 48, was from Leduc, Alta., near Edmonton, and served 15 years with First Air. He is survived by his wife Tatiana, a First Air flight attendant since 1997, and two young children.

First officer David Hare, 35, served four years with First Air. He is survived by his wife Jane and three young daughters. Hare worked and lived in Yellowknife.

Ann Marie Chassie, 42, served 22 years as a flight attendant with First Air. She is survived by her two teenage children.

Ute Merritt, 55, served four years with First Air as a flight attendant. She is survived by her husband Jim, a First Air pilot, and five children.

With files from the Nunatsiaq News

jpress@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/jordan_press

Organizations: First Air, RCMP, Transportation Safety Board.Canadian Forces Canadian Armed Forces Makivik Transportation Safety Board

Geographic location: Resolute Bay Saturday.The RCMP, Ottawa, Rankin Inlet Leduc Edmonton

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