08/20/2011 03:58 EDT | Updated 10/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Plane From Yellowknife To Resolute Bay Crashes In Far North, 12 Dead

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RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut - A First Air 737 crashed and caught fire in northern Nunavut Saturday, killing 12 people.

Police say the jet, a 737-200, went down Saturday afternoon near the hamlet of Resolute Bay.

Witnesses said the plane crashed into a small hill near the airport runway. Local residents rushed to the site on all-terrain vehicles to see if they could help pull people from the flaming wreckage.

"You could see parts of the plane everywhere ... tail, nose everything," said Saroomie Manik, a former mayor of the community who went to the site.

Police said the plane was a chartered flight, number 6560, travelling from Yellowknife to Resolute Bay. RCMP said there were 15 people on board, including four crew.

Three were injured in the crash. Two adults and a child were flown to a hospital in the territorial capital of Iqaluit for treatment, police said. One of the adults was in critical condition.

Manik said there were two young girls on the plane, the grandchildren of an owner of a local inn. The hotel's cook was also on the plane, she added.

RCMP Cst. Angelique Dignard said the crash site is less than two kilometres west of the community and is accessible by ATV, but the terrain is rough.

Maj. Gerald Favre at the northern search and rescue centre at CFB Trenton said aircraft were already in the area as part of an operational exercise — Operation Nanook — and have been able to assist in the rescue.

He said the plane that crashed was not part of the exercise and 700 personnel participating were well position to help with the rescue.

Chris Krepski, spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said investigators are on the scene. They were already in Resolute, scheduled to participate next week in the military exercise.

Krepski said it was too soon to say what caused the crash.

"At this point it's very early stages," he said. "The first stage in an investigation is data-gathering phase.

"At this point it's gathering as much information as we can from the accident scene, from interviewing witnesses, speaking to air traffic control, getting weather records, maintenance records from the company, that kind of thing."

A airport worker, who wouldn't give his name, said there was a low cloud ceiling at the time of the crash. It lifted about 10 minutes afterward.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was scheduled to be in Resolute to observe the military operation. His office could not immediately say whether the trip would still go ahead.

Governor General David Johnston is currenlty touring Nunavut and his official itinerary had him in Resolute Saturday morning. A spokeswoman from his office said no one from the official deligation was involved in the crash.

Resolute is a tiny Inuit community of about 250 tucked in a shallow, gravelly bay along the northernmost leg of the Northwest Passage.

Despite its remote location far above the treeline, Resolute is known as the nexus of the North, a frequent staging community for scientific, military and commercial expeditions. It's also the base for the Canadian Polar Continental Shelf project, a federal institution that handles logistics for Arctic researchers.

Resolute is also the planned location of the army's new winter warfare school.

"It's the kicking off point," said University of Calgary Arctic expert Rob Huebert. "If you're to do anything, in terms of research, Resolute is where you're going to be from a geographic position in the eastern Arctic."

The terrain around the community is low and rocky. A large hill fronted by a dramatic cliff face looms behind the town.