People in the small community of Fond du Lac who rushed to the rescue after a plane crash Wednesday night described working in a “rain of aviation fuel” as they used snowmobiles to haul survivors out of the bush.
The West Wind Aviation AT42 turboprop plane was carrying 22 passengers and three crew members on a flight to Stony Rapids when it crashed just after takeoff. No one was killed, but at least five people were airlifted to hospital.
Raymond Sanger was at home with family and friends when they heard about the crash. They were among about 50 people in the small town who raced to the airport, some arriving on snowmobiles.
Sanger said he was in shock, but everyone started to help first responders get people out of the wreckage.
“We were using our cell phones because it was so dark,” he said. “Someone shouted ‘don’t use your lighters’ [because of the aviation fuel coming from the wing].”
Sanger said he grabbed a flashlight that was on the inside of the plane.
“We were standing under this wing and it was like we were all standing under the rain,” he said. “The gas was leaking everywhere… one spark and everybody would be gone.”
Sanger said people were ripping pieces of the plane apart to try to get to the remaining passengers who were still pinned inside.
“We broke everything out of that plane… the boys were outside ripping things apart,” he recalled. “After we got the man out I crawled back inside where we’d ripped things apart. I took my jacket off and put it over the woman. I was just staying with them and keeping them alive, making sure they didn’t go under.”
Sanger said it seemed like everyone in the community who was available was there helping out.
He later realized how harrowing the entire experience was.
“We’re the luckiest people who ever lived to get these people out of that plane… because the plane was full of gas and there was no spark. My clothes were soaking wet with fuel.”
5 people airlifted to hospital
Willie Laurent survived the crash. He said the plane started flying strangely just moments after take-off.
He said it took half an hour to force open a door after the aircraft hit the ground.
Darrel McDonald’s 71-year-old mother Ernestine suffered serious injuries in the crash.
McDonald said she is recovering in a Saskatoon hospital after suffering broken ribs, a fractured nose and possibly a punctured lung, as well as some internal bruising.
“She hardly could speak, she’s still in shock, and she’s aware, she’s conscious and in pain,” McDonald told 650 CKOM in a phone interview Thursday.
He explained that his mother is on oxygen and waiting to undergo some procedures.
Fond du Lac Dene Nation Chief Louie Mercredi told paNOW he knew most of the people on board.
One of Mercredi’s cousins was travelling with his son who was pinned in the wreckage, and was the last passenger rescued from the aircraft.
Mercredi said he’s thankful for the efforts of community members and first responders, as well as the Canadian Rangers, the RCMP and healthcare workers.
He also offered his thoughts and prayers for those injured in the crash. He said he hopes they are able to make it home for the holidays this year.
Chief calls for improved runway and all-season road
The chief joined other members of the Prince Albert Grand Council for a news conference Thursday. They said the crash highlights the need for improvements in northern communities.
Mercredi said the community has one of the shortest runways in northern Saskatchewan and with the size of planes growing and the number of people who are flying in and out, upgrades are needed.
The local leaders also said the incident highlights the need for an all-season road to Fond du Lac. The community is only accessible by air during the summer months. An ice road provides access in the winter, but many people still fly in and out.
“We as leaders need to sit down with the province regarding all-season roads and upgrades to our runways,” Mercredi said.
-with files from paNow’s Glenn Hicks, paNow’s Bryan Eneas, CKOM News and Canadian Press