Taking hope out of the equation

Michael Johansen
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The news was local, but it briefly went national.

A snowmobile trail groomer crossing previously safe ice on the Terrington Basin broke through to open water and sank. The driver and passenger managed to escape with only seconds to spare. The news was, of course, of great interest in Labrador, especially because everyone wanted to know that no one had been hurt. However, when the Internet carried it outside the region, a scattering of anonymous commentators had to have their say. According to them, what made the news important to local people made it pointless to everyone else:

No one died? How boring.

Unfortunately, their ignorant and unfeeling comments were tragically answered a day later. One of Makkovik's youngest sons had lost his way on the ice outside of his community and then he lost his life.

One does not need to have known Burton Winters to feel the loss of his passing. Every life cut short by mishap and mischance, whether at 14 years or at 114, is a loss of precious time for dreams and destinies.

Winters was a high school student who played baseball, followed manga and was a fan of the local band, Search Pardy! The day he disappeared he was only expected to be driving from one house in Makkovik to another, but somehow his snowmobile ended up more than 10 kilometres from town and his body was eventually discovered 19 kilometres beyond.

No one can know all the boy thought as he sought the horizon and followed it to the end, but anyone who has been lost will know how fear battles hope and hope, fear - how every moment brings a choice between living and dying, between succumbing to exhaustion and taking just one more step, between surrendering to the cold and climbing just one more rise because you're certain that from that one you'll finally see home.

As others closer to young Burton have already said, to have walked so far in such conditions was a feat that reveals a strength of character so profound he perhaps already had courage enough to defeat the rising fear. Even so, a little hope could only have helped.

As many survivors of horrendous ordeals often relate, what keeps them going is the certainty that other people are aware they're in danger and are trying to aid them. Their faith in their family, their friends and their government, the belief that they would never abandon them while there's still hope of life, that they were doing everything to rescue them as fast as possible: that's what kept them going, that's what gave them the hope that they would survive the perils they faced, that they need not surrender.

One can only assume that that's what gave poor Burton Winters the strength to keep going, the belief he would be found. He should not have been wrong.

As soon as it was known that Winters was overdue, his friends, family and the RCMP launched a search for him that was quickly joined by a helicopter from a private company. However, as everyone knows by now, federal search-and-rescue was absent, its pilots and aircraft kept ready and waiting for two days while the military sent various excuses instead. It was a question of jurisdiction, they explained - land searches, sea searches: it's all so confusing. The requests had to go through all the proper channels. Plus, the weather was bad and, anyway, wasn't there already a helicopter involved in the search? How many do you need?

As events transpired their value was quickly proven, since once they got to town it didn't take them long to first find the boy's abandoned snowmobile and then his frozen body. Too late, of course.

DND's chief of defence staff has ordered an investigation into the delay, but how comprehensive will it be? Will it cease when the trail of orders leaves the military chain of command and enters the foggy realm of politics? Or will it do the unexpected, bust out of its constraints and question whether the removal of decision-making from local hands might have contributed to this collosal failure of the country's search and rescue services? Not likely.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador


Organizations: RCMP

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Terrington Basin

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Recent comments

  • Spencer
    February 13, 2012 - 10:16

    Has anyone asked why this child was riding a snowmobile without an adult? This is against the law, and there is clearly a good reason for that law. If we want to be honest about the causes of this tragedy, we have to look at this fact.

  • Townie
    February 12, 2012 - 08:42

    I think it is more disgusting that someone would trivalize the death of a young boy and try to swipe it under the rug. Canadians were warned about this government when senior members were involved in the Mike Harris government with its lax handling of safety issues.

    • Lane
      February 12, 2012 - 12:54

      I don't hear anyone trivializing the matter, Townie. But spreading partisanship, anger and blame does nothing to improve our search and rescue system. Why don't you try making a concrete recommendation to improve the SAR system instead?

  • ..
    February 11, 2012 - 23:46

    Nobody would purposefully imperil a boys life? They knew he was there, and did not help, inaction is just as damning as action.

  • Lane
    February 11, 2012 - 18:36

    It is disgusting the way some people (like Johansen) are playing the blame game with this kid's tragic death. Politicians do not give orders regarding the deployment of helicopters for search and rescue operations. Nobody, not even politicians, would deliberately make decisions they knew would imperil a boy's life. So by all means let's learn from this tragedy and do what it necessary to improve our SAR procedures, but stop the blame game.