Sunday, August 20, 2006

Part 3 of 4. The first and second parts are below this post. This is not a feel-good story.

Chris and Bob elected to take the Navajo out over the waters of Lake Athabasca, where we could scud-run to within a few hundred feet above the lake and not have to worry about hitting power lines, etc. I knew this approach into Uranium City, we called it the "Beaverlodge 1" approach - fly west along the lakeshore until you came to an old settlement, then turn north and follow a small river which would bring you to the threshold of the runway in Uranium City. The runway at Uranium was on a ridge, and depending on how low over the lake you were, you might actually have to climb up to reach the elevation of the runway. This let you stay beneath the cloud instead of climbing up into the cloud and conducting an official instrument approach into the airport, which would often result in failure if the weather was poor. It wasn't necessarily legal, but it was effective.

We dropped down and flew toward the beaverlodge as the visibility grew worse. Daryl grew visibly more pale and when he squeezed my hands it was with less strength. We all told him to hang on, that the airport was only a few minutes away and he'd be in the hospital very quickly. He sat up a little, propping himself up with his arms. I told him to sit back and relax. He squeezed my hand, then looked at me and told me to tell Nicole that he loved her, and to tell his dad that he loved him. That really scared me - he was 3 years younger than I was and fit and strong: I had seen him carry hundred pound bags of luggage without breaking a sweat. I felt like some bundle of wiring deep inside my brain had begun to arc, filling everything with smoke and throwing hot sparks everywhere. I said he could do that in person himself, that he was going to be fine, but I think my voice had already started to crack a little. He said goodbye buddy, lay back down on the stretcher, and closed his eyes. He stopped squeezing my hands. The nurses stuck him with another huge needle and started to run more saline - he was up to 4 iv lines. They looked at me and I looked back at them and we were all helpless.

The Navajo was reached the beaverlodge and turned north, ducking most of the clouds, and popping through some low scud - we were just skimming the bottoms of the cloud layer and we were maybe 75 feet above the lake. One thing I'll say about Chris the captain - we had significant differences about a great many things but he was a masterful pilot and I trusted his hands and feet. The flaps lowered and the gear came down and we were mostly in cloud now, with the occasional sight of the river and trees beneath us.

Daryl's breath grew more shallow and his legs stopped shaking and his chest raised and lowered a few more times, almost imperceptibly, and then stopped. The nurses started CPR, with one pushing on Daryl's chest and the other one pumping a little facemask that pushed air into his lungs.

I heard Chris say "Yes!" up front, and I looked out in time to see us touch down on the runway. The clouds were in the trees but Chris had gotten us in. He had the plane from the runway to the main ramp in seconds, and the white hospital van was already waiting for us. We shut down and unloaded Daryl in only a few moments, with the nurses still pumping the mask over his face, and still pushing down hard on his chest while we carefully but quickly moved the stretcher into the back of the van. The doctor was inside the van and he asked the nurses for an update. They told him Daryl hadn't had a pulse for 5 minutes and that seemed to calm the doctor down. The nurses kept pumping and the doctor reached from inside the van to grab the back door and pull it shut. He saw me standing just outside the van and made eye contact for just a second before he closed the door. He shook his head and that's when I knew for sure.

The van left, heading for the hospital. Chris and Bob and I stood on the ramp, numb. We walked inside the terminal and met Jen and Bill, the employee couple who were based in Uranium City at the time. We all hugged. I noticed that I was covered in blood and went to their washroom to rinse it off my hands and arms. When I came out, Chris was standing by the door. "The hospital called. He didn't make it." I bolted for the door and the forest outside.

As I walked through the trees I thought of the last few months and how much fun we had had at the red log cabin, drinking beer after a long day and cranking the tunes while playing Nintendo. And fishing and barbequeing and cracking jokes and talking about the nature of reality while sitting outside and watching the northern lights. I thought of Nicole's visit and I thought of Daryl's million-watt smile when she first arrived and walked from the Jetstream into the terminal in Stony Rapids. And then I thought of the dumbest thing - Jerry Maguire, the video we had rented just after lunch at the northern store. I was going to watch it alone and it was an incomprehensible situation. Then I thought of the fact that Nicole called every day around 6pm, and it was 3pm already and I had to sit down on a rock and think about that carefully. I found if I curled up I could make myself smaller and I needed to be very small for a while.

I made my way back to the terminal building and found the rest of the group sitting on the ramp with their backs against the hangar side. The nurses had returned and they both came over and we hugged and stood for a little while. Then it was time to go. Chris and Bob fired up the Navajo and we all got into the plane for the half-hour ride back to Stony. I don't remember much about the ride, but I do remember that we flew over VLH's wreckage on final approach to the runway at Stony Rapids - there was no way to avoid it. We landed and the nurses left. Bob and I stayed behind to clean the blood from the aircraft.

I walked home to the log cabin, dreamlike. Daryl's laundry was hanging from the line outside. I sat down at our kitchen table and read the grocery list he had written down earlier in the day. Then I sat and I waited for Nicole to call. At 6pm on the dot, she did. When the call was over, I phoned my parents and then went to sleep.

The next day Bob, George, Doug, and myself all took the boat out toward the wreckage to clean up the accident site. This is the north and there aren't people to do that sort of work, so if we didn't want the wreckage to just sit there forever, it was up to us to move it. We dragged the wings and tail from the riverbank to a nearby road, then loaded it on the back of a truck and took it to the airport, where we piled it behind an outbuilding. A skidder would later cut a path from the road to the wreckage and retrieve the cockpit and engine, which were too heavy for us to lift. As we cleaned up the smaller pieces of wreckage I found Daryl's pilot license but it still didn't feel real.

Two days later, Chris and I flew Daryl's body to Cranbrook and spent a few days with his family, then returned to Stony after the funeral. Those events are another post entirely, and I'll write about them in a while.

It's been over 9 years since Daryl said goodbye to me and I said goodbye to my friend. It took a long time to get over the horror of that day, but Daryl was a great guy and I had a really good time in his company and what I most remember are the days we spent eating and drinking and laughing and making fools our of ourselves.

That being said, I knew that for me to have any sort of resolution with his this, it was important to me to find out why he crashed. I found that out the day after he died, when we went through the wreckage of VLH.

I'll talk about that tomorrow, in my final post about the events of August 7th, 1997.

1 comment:

christine said...

I think about this sometimes -- after a long enough time in aviation, someone I know is going to die in an airplane. Sometimes I wonder about which of my friends it's going to be and how unspeakably sad it will be. Then, it follows that it could happen to me first ... I think I completely understand the reasons why you had to know how the crash happened, and I'm just glad you did find out why. This story has been running in the back of my mind since you started it, and I want to know what happened, too.

Chris's flying is almost beyond belief. You guys must have known that area so well. You all really fought to save Daryl. What a pile of crap that that had to happen, but you guys are all heroes, seriously, with all you did to try and save his life. Damn.

-C.