North Spirit Lake’s Darcy Keesick was thinking about shoveling his driveway on the morning of Jan. 9.
A blizzard had blanketed the First Nation overnight, and it was still snowing.
Then, sometime after 10 a.m. local time, Keesick’s wife Susan, who had been working at the community’s general store, came running to the house.
A plane had crashed just outside the community.
Flight 231, a Piper PA 31 Navajo aircraft, departed Winnipeg at 7:51 a.m. and was carrying five people – four passengers and a pilot. Officials say the Keystone Air Service plane took off without incident and there was no radio contact with the aircraft once it left Winnipeg airspace.
Then at about 10:05 a.m., the plane crashed onto the lake approximately one kilometer east of North Spirit Lake while making its landing approach.
While Susan called the local Nishnawbe-Aski Police (NAPS) office and nursing station, Keesick got dressed and started his two snowmobiles. When the community’s only NAPS officer arrived, Susan jumped on the snowmobile with Keesick and the trio sped off for the crash site. As they drove through a portion of the winter road, they saw other community members also making their way to the site.
Keesick said he could barely see across the lake due to the blizzard, yet the black smoke from the crash was visible as they neared the scene.
“When I got there, there was a guy, David Campbell, who was already there.” Keesick recalled.
The plane was in flames and Campbell was pulling someone from the wreckage. Keesick jumped off his snowmobile without coming to a full stop and rushed to help Campbell.
“He had (the passenger) out of the cabin, and he was just in between the cabin and the engine,” Keesick said. “I went over there and … helped him drag (the passenger) away from the wreckage.”
The person they pulled out turned out to be the pilot, Fariboz Abasabady, 41, from Lockport, Manitoba. Abasabady was later pronounced dead at the scene.
Campbell told them there was a survivor. Keesick saw Brian Shead, 36, of Winnipeg, sitting in the snow about 10 to 15 feet away from the wreckage.
Shead’s wife Tracy later told reporters that Shead was sitting in the last row of the plane when it crashed. The tail of the plane broke off, and Shead was able to crawl out on his own. Before anyone else arrived, he had attempted to put out the flames himself using a water bottle and snow. He also shouted to the other passengers but got no response.
Seeing Shead sitting in the snow, Susan talked to him and he was coherent and appeared relatively calm. Half of his face was bloodied and he hobbled when he walked. Doctors later told his wife that he had fractures to his face and ankle.
Once they determined that Abasabady was dead, Campbell told Keesick there were more passengers in the plane.
“But there was no movement,” Keesick said.
They tried to douse the three-foot high flames with snow, first by hand and then using a cooler found amongst the wreckage. Keesick said his memories of the scene are a blur, but suddenly more people had arrived and were trying to help put out the fire.
With Shead in need of medical assistance, Keesick and others helped him onto Keesick’s snowmobile and he and the NAPS officer drove him to the nursing station. They had to wait however, as the doctors and nursing staff had rushed to the crash site.
Once a doctor returned and Shead was receiving medical attention, Keesick drove back home to pick up shovels and a toboggan – to help bring Abasabady’s body back to the community – and drove back to the site, where community members were still trying to put out the fire. Keesick said there were at least 10 people and they immediately took the shovels and used them to pour snow on the flames, which appeared to be coming from under the aircraft.
The efforts seemed futile.
“We threw so much snow in there,” Keesick said. “It was piled up pretty high, the snow, but the fire didn’t go out, it melted it all. It just kept burning.”
When Keesick’s sister, Elaine, got up that morning, she noticed the blizzard. This concerned her, as a group of students were scheduled to fly out that day.
“I thought, no one’s gonna fly out in this weather,” she said. As the director of education in the community, she instructed a school employee waiting at the airport not to allow any students to get on a plane.
She went to work as usual and was in her office when the kindergarten teacher, Charlotte Rae, transferred a call to her informing her of the crash.
“(Rae’s) daughter was on the plane,” Elaine said. “I had to have her come sit down in my office and try to hold myself together while I held her and prayed for her.”
Rae’s daughter was Martha Campbell, a 38-year-old from Winnipeg. She was on her way to work with her mother in the community for a few days, and had previously worked in the community over the past 20 years.
After trying her best to console Charlotte and driving her home, Elaine made her way to the crash site.
By the time she got there, the community members had given up trying to put out the flames.
They were never able to get to the three remaining passengers.
Four dead in crash
Officials released the names of the deceased on Jan. 12. In addition to Abasabady and Campbell, Colette Eisinger, a 39-year-old female originally from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, and Ben Van Hoek, a 62-year-old male from Carmen, Man., died in the crash. Shead remains in stable condition in a Winnipeg hospital.
Shead, Eisinger and Van Hoek were with Aboriginal Strategies Inc. (ASI), a Winnipeg company that provides financial management services to First Nations. Two were scheduled to spend the day in the community and fly out in the evening while the other was to proceed onto Deer Lake First Nation.
North Spirit Lake Chief Rita Thompson said the community is still reeling from the loss of the crash victims.
“We were really close to them. They had worked with us for many years,” Thompson said. “They were almost like family members to us.”
Elaine Keesick said she is still trying to deal with the loss of Eisinger, who had become a good friend.
Keesick, meanwhile, still talks with his wife about the day’s events. Being an average citizen, he never expected to be put in such a situation.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do things that I did that day,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking at the time, I just did – stuff. It was just reaction.”
First Nations leaders have offered their condolences to the community and families of the deceased.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the pilot, passengers and all the members of North Spirit Lake First Nation who are dealing with this sudden and very terrible tragedy.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo also issued a statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the leadership and citizens of North Spirit Lake First Nation, as well as our brothers and sisters across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territory impacted by this tragedy,” Atleo said.
Officials are still trying to determine the exact cause of the crash. Members of NAPS and the Ontario Provincial Police remained at the site until investigators with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) arrived the morning after the crash.
TSB spokesperson Peter Hildebrand said the cause of the crash will be difficult to determine, since the plane did not have a flight recorder and the community does not have a flight control tower. Since the plane left Winnipeg airspace, it never made communication with the ground.
Keystone Airways said Abasabady had 2,400 hours of flight experience, 150 of which were with the type of aircraft that crashed.
Meanwhile, Transport Canada is amending the Canadian Aviation Regulations to have planes able to carry six or more passengers install terrain awareness warning systems and enhanced altitude accuracy devices so pilots know if they come too close to the ground.
Transport Canada is proposing the new rules because from 1977 to 2009, 35 aircraft flew into the ground while under the control of pilots, resulting in 100 fatalities and 46 serious injuries.
The North Spirit Lake crash is the worst in northwestern Ontario since 2003, when a Wasaya Airways pilot and seven residents of Summer Beaver First Nation, including most of the community’s band council, were killed when a Cessna Grand Caravan C208 crashed 10 kilometers northwest of the community.
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