POLITICS

'I relive it every night:' lone survivor of northern Ontario plane crash

01/26/2012 03:15 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT
WINNIPEG - One minute Brian Shead was reading his book as a charter plane he had flown on many times before made its descent into a remote northern Ontario aboriginal community.

The next minute, Shead found himself on a snowy lake in a broken aircraft, surrounded by four other people knocked unconscious and still strapped in their seats.

The right wing of the plane was on fire.

"After repeated, unsuccessful attempts to unstrap the others from their seats, I went around the plane and tried to put out the fire on the wing," Shead said Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time since the Jan. 10 crash near North Spirit Lake.

"My efforts there were also in vain. As the fire spread and began to enter the cabin near the rear of the plane, I made a final attempt at the pilot's window. Finally I was able to release the pilot's seatbelt and haul him out of the plane. I pulled him as far as I could before collapsing in the snow."

It's a scene the 36-year-old relives every night when he closes his eyes. Shead, a Winnipeg-based administrator for First Nations, escaped with a crushed foot and facial injuries, but the pilot and the three other passengers died.

Shead is walking with crutches; his foot is still in a cast. A large gash cuts across his face and nose. As the sole survivor, the father of three small children is haunted by guilt and dozens of unanswered questions.

"I relive it every night constantly thinking could I have done something differently that might have changed something?" he said during an emotional news conference where he spoke haltingly, pausing often to compose himself as he clutched his wife Tracy's hand.

"Could I have, forget the fire, worked on trying to get people out of their seats? I don't know. There are a lot of 'what ifs.' There are a lot of questions that I'm struggling with...."

But he's happy to be home.

"Now it's time to be with family."

Residents of North Spirit Lake say the Keystone Airlines plane that crashed was trying to land in a blizzard. People who live in the small community saw the smoke and hurried to the crash site. Shead was taken by snow machine to the local nursing station.

Residents frantically tried to put out the flaming wreckage with snow while others gouged a hole in the lake to try to pump water onto the burning plane.

But they couldn't save the people trapped inside. Rescuers say the snow was quickly saturated with fuel.

The plane was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder. It was landing at an airport where there is no control tower.

The Transportation Safety Board has not determined a cause. It's a mystery to Shead as well.

"I was not concerned about this landing or the weather. It seemed like it was going to be another routine landing. In an instant, that all changed," he said.

"I do not understand why this crash happened. I do not understand how it happened and I have no answers. I have flown Keystone Air 100 times and have never been concerned for my safety."

Shead said he struggles to understand why he was spared when others were not. He knows his life will never be the same. The people on that plane were not just co-workers, but friends.

Shead said he would "like to think" that they were already dead when he regained consciousness and did not suffer.

"An event like this changes a person. I'm determined not to take life for granted. I'll never be able to fill the shoes of the great people who passed away that day, but I'll do my best to follow their lead," Shead said.

"A start for me will be by forever remembering those that I flew with that day and by thanking those who assisted me on the most trying day of my life."

The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating and has interviewed Shead. Spokesman John Cottreau said the board waited until Shead was ready to talk. Cottreau characterized the information Shead offered as "helpful to the investigation."

All the wreckage has been cleared and investigators are still combing through it. An initial report found the plane went down about one kilometre from the runway, burst into flames and left behind a trail of debris spanning just over 100 metres.The landing gear was down at the time and the plane's flaps were partially extended.

It will take time for investigators to determine exactly why the plane went down, Cottreau said.

"They take a long time because investigations are very complex," he said. "We're going to do a thorough investigation and we're going to take the time we need to make sure we answer the three important questions: what happened, why did it happen and how can it be prevented from happening again?"