After plane crash,30 deadly hours in the high Arctic Ordeal began with a routine supply run.

November 07, 1991|By New York Times

TORONTO -- A giant C-130 Hercules of the Canadian military crashed Oct. 30 on a routine supply run, beginning an ordeal of survival in the forbidding frozen darkness of the high Arctic.

The full story, which has been coming out in recent days from survivors and rescuers, has gripped the Canadian public -- most of whom live within an east-west band about 150 miles from the American border -- and served as a grim reminder of the country's vast northern reaches. South to north, Canada stretches almost 3,000 miles -- farther than from New York City to Los Angeles.

The plane was on a routine supply run from the U.S. Air Force base at Thule, Greenland, to the secret military listening post at Alert, perched on the northern end of Ellesmere Island, the world's most northern settlement, 400 miles from the North Pole.

The radar outpost, staffed by about 200 Canadian military personnel, is part of the continent's early missile warning system and was being resupplied by the Hercules for the long winter. All information about the post is restricted by the Canadian Defense Department.

The four-engine turbo-prop aircraft with a wingspan of nearly 150 feet -- a jack-of-all-trades plane widely used by the Canadian and U.S. military to haul cargo and troops -- was on its final approach to the Alert airstrip when it slammed into the Arctic wasteland and broke up.

The plane's "black box," which tapes conversations and records flight information electronically, has been recovered and is in relatively good shape. The cause of the crash has not been determined.

Iris Bales, the mother of the co-pilot, Lt. Joseph Bales, said her son had phoned upon being rescued and said the crash may have been caused by a malfunction of the aircraft.

While most of the 18 aboard the plane suffered cuts and burns and broken bones, all were alive immediately after the crash.

But, in the 30 hours that it took for the first squad of military paramedics to arrive, five people, including the pilot, Capt. John Couch, a 32-year-old father of two, had frozen to death.

The airlift of the survivors did not begin until 40 hours after the crash. Yet, the crash site was a mere 12 miles from the Alert settlement.

Survivors had expected rescue within the hour. While the plane was making its approach late on the afternoon of Oct. 30, the weather was relatively good, and the lights of Alert had even been sighted from the cockpit. The region is in darkness at this time of year except for two hours of pale light in the morning.

It also is a region of fluky weather. Shortly after the accident, a blizzard struck suddenly with high winds and zero visibility. Also impeding rescue attempts was a small range of mountains between the crash site and the base, slowing overland assistance.

The survivors found some shelter in pieces of the tail section that had broken off from the rest of the plane on impact. But, because the section was open to the elements, they still faced temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius in the blizzard wind. Such a wind would freeze exposed skin in less than a minute.

Much of the survival gear that all military planes on Arctic missions carry -- food, blankets, small stoves, first-aid kits, heavy-duty sleeping bags -- was either lost or burned in the fire that broke out after the crash.

Eleven of the 13 survivors lay in sleeping bags inside the tail section, huddled together for warmth, eating candies from survival rations and answering periodic roll calls. Two were left outside, covered by makeshift pup tents, because it was thought they had spinal injuries and could not be moved.

"It was tough," Bales said in an interview with the Toronto newspaper Globe and Mail. "People were dying in your arms, one after the other."

The co-pilot said that Couch, who was dressed only in a light jacket and leather boots, refused warm clothing so that others could have it. "There weren't any spare jackets to give us," he said. "There was no spare clothing. There were no spare mitts for John."

But Couch "fought right to the end," Bales said. "He didn't lie down. He was the first one helping people."

The pilot's death occurred just a few hours before the arrival of the paramedics.

The crash and its aftermath have raised questions about whether the Canadian military is adequately equipped to deal with accidents in the north. The Alert base had no helicopters on hand. Maj. Scott McLean, commanding officer of the Alert base, said the U.S. military shipped two H-60 Black Hawk helicopters from Alaska, which were finally used to airlift the survivors.

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