Give Burton Winters the legacy he deserves

Gerry Phelan
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A year has passed but the scar remains from the Burton Winters search and rescue snafu. A child freezing to death is a tragedy; not knowing if we’ve learned how to prevent a similar incident is nothing short of a crime.

Vigils and  protests will take place next week as we mark the anniversary. Too many questions remain unanswered about what happened, who did what and when, and, of course, why.  

The story is well known. Fourteen-year-old Burton Winters from Makkovik set off on his snowmobile on Jan. 29. The machine broke down and the lad walked 19 kilometres before falling victim to the elements.

Behind the scenes, RCMP and Emergency Services spearheaded a search, but federal resources were not available for a host of official reasons, from broken-down equipment, to poor weather, to the unfathomable suggestion that if a chopper was tasked from Gander to the Labrador search, it wouldn’t be available if an incident happened somewhere else. It was late on Jan. 31 before a military helicopter joined the operation; Burton’s body was found the next day.

I wonder what that determined teenager would have thought about the way things were handled. The mere fact he walked as far as he did in gruelling conditions showed an amazing will to survive. Age does not make a man, and lesser men might have given up much sooner.

He had to believe, especially after the hours turned to days, that someone was looking for him, that — as we hear on the news day in and day out — rescue resources had been tasked to help. Alone with his thoughts in the dark, the cold, the ice and the snow, what did he think? What would you think?

In the months that followed Burton Winters’ death, we saw a game of ass-covering unfold that none of us fell for.

“Protocols were followed” we were told. The Department of National Defence now does proactively call back provincial officials to see if federal aircraft are still required in cases of an extended search like Burton Winters’. Previously, the onus had been on provincial authorities to call the military to request additional assets. As well, a third Griffon helicopter is now stationed at CFB Goose Bay.

The provincial government, meanwhile, provided funding to the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association to purchase thermal imaging cameras and to train members how to use them. The infrared cameras detect heat given off by an object or person and can be helpful in search operations.

In May, the premier said the province did not accept the explanation given by the federal government, the minister of national defence and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in terms of the way they responded in the Burton Winters case and why. Still, politicians from both levels of government sang from the same hymn book, saying that even with the mistakes that may have been made, there was no need for an inquiry. We heard the familiar refrain that there was “ample information in the public domain.”

We’ve had inquiries about lesser things. No doubt there would be more finger-pointing, but the lessons learned might be worth it. A full review of search and rescue is long overdue.

In the coming days, there will be renewed calls for enhanced search and rescue services. A Facebook group with thousands of members has been demanding that a full-time search and rescue unit be based in Labrador, named for Burton Winters.  

I wonder how many sleepless nights people who made poor judgment calls in the Burton Winters case have had since last February? The stain on their consciences is still there.

And as for the politicians, the next time something similar happens — and there will be a next time — heads will hang in shame that they ignored the call to action when it was needed most.

Burton Winters is more than a boy who was lost on the ice. Twelve months after his death, his name sparks a rallying cry that everything possible be done to make us the best-prepared place to handle the worst.

Burton Winters didn’t get a second chance, but he gave us one.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster.

He can be reached at

Organizations: RCMP and Emergency Services, Department of National Defence, Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association Joint Rescue Co

Geographic location: Labrador, Makkovik, Gander CFB Goose Bay

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Recent comments

  • Harold
    January 26, 2013 - 19:02

    good article Gerry. politicians have no conscience. they know that eventually voters will move on or other more important things will come up. R.I.P. Burton Winters. it's time someone put the tragedy in a book or movie or wrote a song. allowing a 14 year old boy to freeze to death, alone on the ice is totally unforgiveable, shameful and cowardly.

  • Pierre Neary
    January 25, 2013 - 20:45

    An inquiry was sorrily needed into this tragedy. I hope the two Peter's have had some sleepless nights over this. They deserve it.