Friday, August 18, 2006

Part 2 of 4. This is not a feel-good story. Read the first part in the previous post, below this one.

I came back to Stony Rapids on July 30th, and Nicole left for Cranbrook. Daryl was elated - they had been together for 7 years, since they were both 16, and he had proposed to her during her visit to Stony. She had accepted, and they were planning a wedding for the winter in Cranbrook.

We continued our sumer routine at the log cabin for a week - He would get up around 4am to be on the dock for 430am so he could fly fishermen to their camps, and fly supplies to the lodges, and I would head to the airport where I would coordinate the fleet of aircraft and make sure the paperwork at least resembled something approaching a legal operation. I was very envious of his job, and wished I could be in the air, but I was still putting in my dues and I wasn't going to get an airplane until the fall at least.

On August 7th, 1997 I was doing my thing at the airport when Daryl came up to the office and we went for lunch. After lunch we got a video at the Northern Store to watch after work, then I went down to the waterbase to hang out for a bit while he got his 185 ready to take a hot water heater to Scott Lake Lodge. The plane had just come out of inspection so he was happy to be flying again after it had been down for a couple of days. We loaded up the hot water heater in the back, and he got in. He was flying solo, just him and the cargo. After he got to the lodge, he'd be picking up some passengers and returning them to Stony so they could catch the sked flight south after their fishing vacation.

Daryl fired up VLH and taxiied the 185 down the river a little before turning around and commencing his run, heading toward the rapids of Stony Rapids. VLH got airborne and I watched him as he climbed out, wishing I was on board as I started the trudge back toward the office. The ear-splitting whine of the 185 propellor at takeoff power was a familiar sound and it echoed across the water, down the lake.

Then there was silence.

I turned around and watched VLH disappear behind the trees, in a 60 degree right bank.

Silence again.

I ran back toward the waterbase and heard the owner's voice come across our company frequency - his house was down the river a little ways and he would have seen everything through his main window.

"A plane has just crashed on the riverbank. Get a boat"

George and Bob, two float pilots living in the waterbase, came running. They fired up our aluminum fishing boat and we set off toward the trees where VLH had disappeared. We blasted up the river and went around a bend, where we saw the wreckage. The plane was in a foot of water, just on the shore of the river. The right wing had snapped off at the root, and the fuselage aft of the cockpit had bent about 90 degrees to one side. My heart was in my mouth, and I felt like I was going to throw up. We got to the plane and looked inside. The cockpit panel had been pushed forward and the engine had been pushed into the space normally occupied by the rudder pedals. Daryl was wedged in the cockpit at a crazy angle, he was facing straight ahead but his waist was twisted to the right and his legs were across the passenger seat. He had hit the dash and his Raybans were pushed into his face. We tried to remove them, but they were embedded - Bob was finally able to get them off by using his Leatherman. There was blood everwhere. But Daryl was breathing, so we were hopeful. The left door of the plane was smashed closed, but the right door wasn't attached to the airplane any more, so we decided to pull him out through the right side of the plane. We noticed gas was leaking from the ruptured wing tanks and George turned off the electrics, preventing an awful situation from becoming worse.

We were then joined by a lot of SERM guys - they are the guys who fight forest fires and they had heard about the crash on their radio and had come running from their camp a little ways down the road. They helped lift the plane and tilt it while some of us pulled Daryl from the wreckage. A van drove up close to the shoreline and opened the rear doors. We carried Daryl, still unconscious, to the van and loaded him in the back. He was going to be driven to the nursing station, where they would assess his condition and then decide if he was going to go to the hospital 100 miles away in Uranium City or be medevaced down to La Ronge or Saskatoon.

I ran back to the airport terminal along with George, and told him to warm up a Navajo while I got on the phone. Air Sask called in on our company frequency, they were 10 minutes out, coming through on their sked run. I hadn't done any paperwork on it at all, so I started on that also - filling out their weight and balance and passenger load, and trying to make sure it was complete. The navajo's engines coughed into life outside as George got the oil temps up to normal and prepared for the flight to Uranium.

I got a call from the nursing station - Daryl was too critical to make the flight down south, so we were going to take him to the hospital in Uranium City where the doctor could stabilize him before we flew him south. The total time since the crash was maybe 10 minutes, and had only been at the nursing station a few moments before they realized he had to go to a larger center for care.

Chris the Ops Manager arrived and headed for the Navajo. George had said earlier that he was distraught and didn't trust himself to fly right then - the weather was iffy at Uranium City and George and Daryl were good friends, so Chris and Bob would do the flight while I would sit in the back of the plane with the nurses and Daryl.

The Air Sask Jetstream landed and arrived just as the van carrying Daryl arrived, along with about 20 SERM firefighters who had helped remove Daryl from the airplane. Air Sask passengers milled around the ramp and it was a state of confusion and chaos. I walked up to Terry, the Captain of the Jetstream and told him what was happening and that I had to leave and he was on his own for loading up his new pax and getting airborne. I pushed the paperwork I had into his hands and left him. To his credit, he was great and he immediately rose to the occasion, deftly organising his passengers and their bags while I turned my attention to the van.

Daryl had regained consciousness, but he was in and out. He would moan "Pull up pull up pull up" and then stop for a little while, then start again. The nurses were in the van and still installing iv lines in Daryl's arms as a bunch of the SERM guys gently scooped him up and carried him to the Navajo on a stretcher. Chris and Bob were already up front, and had pulled out some of the rear seats so we could lay the stretcher flat. We loaded Daryl up along with the two nurses. I hopped in, closed the door and we were off, with Chris starting our takeoff roll from the taxiway.

I held Daryl's hands while the nurses pumped saline into him. He was more conscious now, and we managed to talk a little. I told him he had been in an accident and we were flying to the hospital and that he'd be fine. I asked him if he was in pain and he said no, he didn't feel any pain at all. I told him he could squeeze my hands if he felt scared, and he did. He wanted to sit up, but it was clear that he had suffered some sort of spinal injury and his legs were both badly broken, so I convinced him to remain laying down. He asked for water, but the nurses said the likelihood of internal injuries meant that he was to have nil by mouth until he was more properly diagnosed. They felt bad and one of them gave him a little water from a bottle. He guzzled it and thanked her, saying he'd get her a beer in return later. That made me smile. About 15 minutes had gone by, and as we flew along the shore of Lake Athabasca, we came up on Fond du Lac which was halfway between Stony Rapids and Uranium City. Another 15 minutes and we'd be landing, with the hospital only a few minutes past that. Daryl vomited, and there were things that were supposed to be inside a person in it. He squeezed my hands harder.

Now when I said before that the weather enroute was 'iffy', I meant it was about 200' overcast once we got past Fond du Lac on the way to Uranium City. The instrument approach into Uranium City would only take us down to 500' or so, but the hospital was the only decent medical care within 600 miles. I knew Chris and Bob were going to do whatever it took to get into the airport. Daryl was now slurring his words and had started to turn grey.

To be continued.


Donny Prater said...

Man that's sad about your friend. I am fascinated by your blog stories! It's amazing that you get to travel like you do for a living, blackflies and all.

arf said...

Wow. You are a terrific writer. This is a terrible story but you are able to convey the sadness and horror of it, and the emotion. I am teary-eyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine how difficult it must be for you to be writing this, let alone sharing it with everyone. It sounds like Daryl was very lucky to have a friend like you in his life.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

It breaks my heart to know your friends' suffering and yours as well. What an amazing account, KM