POLITICS

RCMP denies report suggesting Newfoundland was slow to help in search for boy

05/07/2012 12:41 EDT | Updated 07/07/2012 05:12 EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The Mounties, a search co-ordinator and Premier Kathy Dunderdale are denying a media report suggesting Newfoundland and Labrador was slow to help in the search for a missing boy who later died on the frozen Labrador Sea.

Fourteen-year-old Burton Winters was found dead in February three days after he went missing while snowmobiling outside the coastal community of Makkovik.

The military has been criticized for not joining the search for two days, citing poor weather and mechanical problems with its aircraft.

Audiotapes released to the CBC by National Defence include comments from an RCMP officer suggesting the province did not respond to a request for air support on Jan. 29, the night Burton disappeared.

RCMP Cpl. Kimball Vardy, an officer based in Makkovik, is heard telling a military search co-ordinator that searchers were told to call back the next morning.

"We went through that the very first day, right?" Vardy is heard saying. "We requested it that night. They never even looked at anything until 8 o'clock the next morning. And I don't think they were here until after 10 or, no, it was actually almost one o'clock in the afternoon before the helicopter arrived."

Vardy was referring to a commercial helicopter that arrived to help. Military aircraft did not show up for another day.

Vardy could not be reached for comment Monday.

But the Mounties issued a statement saying that in fact the province wasn't contacted by RCMP headquarters until the morning of Jan. 30 due to weather conditions and how the search was unfolding.

On that first crucial night of Jan. 29, searchers "did not have a starting point" as they combed through the community and immediate area before looking out over the sea ice, RCMP Sgt. Marc Coulombe told reporters.

"Present weather conditions were deteriorating," says a timeline released by the RCMP. "A request for helicopter assistance would be made to N.L. provincial fire and emergency services in the morning."

Dunderdale also said the province received its first call for help from the RCMP at about 8:30 a.m. the day after the boy was reported missing.

That timeline has been confirmed by the provincial minister responsible for fire and emergency services, the department's logs, the RCMP and the phone company that handled the calls, she told the legislature Monday.

"There is no new news that has come to light in the last 24 to 48 hours," she said. "Mr. Speaker, as the minister has said, the police in charge of that jurisdiction are the lead in search and rescue activities."

Dunderdale later told reporters that she will soon meet with Burton's grandmother, who contacted her out of concern that his memory is getting lost in the political aftermath of his death.

"So one grandmother to another grandmother, we're going to sit and talk about Burton."

Details of that chat will not be released by her office, Dunderdale said.

Barry Andersen, a community constable in Makkovik and a volunteer co-ordinator for ground search and rescue, said searchers did not expect air support until the next day due to snow and extremely poor visibility.

He said Monday that nothing the province or military could have done would have changed the weather.

"It was no good for an air search that night, plus we had no search area," said Andersen, a relative of Burton's.

It was up to RCMP operational support services — not officers or volunteers on the ground — to contact provincial officials, he added.

Coulombe could not immediately explain why Vardy's comments seem to suggest otherwise. But he stressed that it wasn't clear that first night that air support was even required.

Andersen said searchers at first never imagined that the boy would be found several kilometres out on the sea ice.

He said Burton had never been taken by his father that far out, and that it appeared he made a wrong turn that afternoon in blowing snow before driving toward open water.

Footprints ultimately led searchers to his body about 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile.

Liberal member Randy Edmunds, who lives in Makkovik and was on the private helicopter that found the boy's body, says the search and rescue system failed. He called again Monday for a public inquiry but Dunderdale has cast doubt on what such a probe would achieve in this case.

She also said she has received some information from Defence Minister Peter MacKay that she will release when she has more detail about how the military responded.