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Trapped hunters come to helicopter pilot’s rescue

ARVIAT, Nunavut (Canadian OH&S News)


ARVIAT, Nunavut (Canadian OH&S News)

The rescuer became the rescued when the would-be saviour’s helicopter broke through the ice and began to sink and the search-and-rescue pilot, on a mission to snag two stranded seal hunters in Canada’s North, had to look to the hunters for aid.

At about 2:45 p.m. on Jan. 9, the pilot from St. Andrews, Man.-based Custom Helicopters Ltd. successfully landed on an ice floe near the hamlet of Arviat, Nunavut, on the western shore of the Hudson Bay, when the bird began to sink into the icy waters, said Cpl. Yvonne Niego, a spokesperson for the Nunavut RCMP. A news release from the hamlet of about 2,850 people said that aircraft from the Canadian Forces were involved in the search and rescue operation to locate the two hunters who went missing from the community, along with Custom Helicopters and a local rescue team.

There was some initial confusion as the various organizations tried to piece together what had happened. Cpl. Niego explained that it was initially reported to the RCMP that a helicopter had crashed near the community of Arviat, with military aircraft in the area attempting to reach the scene of the accident, but it was later discovered that the aircraft had successfully landed, but then broke through the ice.

Media reports said that one of the hunters used his harpoon to pull the pilot from the water and wrapped him in one of the sleeping bags the pilot had initially dropped from the plane.

The two hunters, identified as Joe Karetak and his son, and the pilot were treated for hypothermia, Cpl. Niego reported. The average temperature on the day of the accident was about -36 degrees Celsius, excluding the wind chill, said a weather report from Environment Canada. Fortunately, “the injuries were not as serious as initially projected,” the RCMP added in a news release.

Karetak, who is also the community education development co-ordinator with Nunavut’s Department of Education, could not be reached for comment by COHSN press time.

Pilot had thousands of hours experience, knew area

Jim Hawes, president of Custom Helicopters, said that the pilot has several thousand hours of flying experience, including experience in Quebec, Labrador and the eastern Arctic region.

“He’s flown up in that area previously, in the Arviat area,” Hawes explained.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada gathered information on the incident for statistical purposes, but would not be conducting a formal investigation or releasing a report to the public, said Peter Hildebrand, the safety watchdog’s regional manager in Winnipeg.

“There’s nothing to indicate that a full investigation would reveal more facts than we have now or that we’d be able to take safety action that would prevent a similar accident in the future,” Hildebrand said.

He added that it doesn’t seem like flight procedures or any technical concerns with the helicopter were an issue. “The helicopter landed on an ice floe and the ice was quite thin, so when the hunters approached the helicopter, it broke through,” Hildebrand explained. “The landing site eventually proved to be insufficient to hold the weight of the helicopter and the hunters.”

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