08/21/2011 12:25 EDT | Updated 10/20/2011 05:12 EDT

Resolute Bay Plane Crash: 12 Dead, Three Injured

Canadian Forces

RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut - Residents of a remote High Arctic hamlet and soldiers from nearby military exercises rushed to the scene of a deadly passenger jet crash Saturday afternoon in a desperate effort to try to pull survivors from the flaming wreckage.

Only three survived the crash of the First Air 737-200 after it hit a small hill while trying to land on a runway at Resolute, Nunavut.

Twelve died.

Doreen McDonald passed near the charred wreckage of the plane as she was returning to town from a camping trip.

"It's in three different pieces. The wings are still attached. The front and back are separated.

"And they were picking up pieces of bodies."

Saroomie Manik, a former mayor of the community, rushed to the site on her ATV after the crash happened.

"You could see parts of the plane everywhere ... tail, nose everything," he said.

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.

Although McDonald said the area itself is now cordoned off, the crash is clearly visible.

"We can see the plane. You can see it very clearly from the airport or if you're driving on the highway road."

Police said the plane was a chartered flight, number 6560, travelling from Yellowknife to Resolute. There were 11 passengers and four crew on board.

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.

The crash has sent a wave of sorrow through the tiny community.

"People are still in shock," said McDonald, adding her phone had been ringing nonstop as the community tried to come to grips with the tragedy.

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.

He said the plane that crashed was not part of the exercise and the 700 personnel participating were well positioned 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."

An 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.

RCMP said late Saturday that they had recovered two black boxes from the crash site, and that they were sending six forensic identification officers to Resolute. Four of those officers will identify the deceased, the release said, while the remaining two will be dedicated to the accident investigation.

Some of the forensic officers were also involved in investigating the Swissair crash off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998, the release noted.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was scheduled to be in Resolute this coming week to observe the military operation.

"I am deeply saddened by news of this tragic plane crash near Resolute Bay," Harper said in a statement.

"I would like to thank the dedicated members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who are in Resolute Bay for Operation Nanook 2011 and who have been working tirelessly on the ground with emergency personnel to respond to the situation."

Gov. Gen. David Johnston and his wife are currently touring Nunavut and were in Resolute Saturday morning. A spokeswoman from Johnston's office said no one from the official delegation was involved in the crash.

"I was able to witness first hand the professionalism and dedication of our Canadian Forces and civilian organizations as they responded quickly and effectively to this catastrophe," Johnston said in a news release. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this tragic event."

A spokeswoman for Johnston said the Governor General was cancelling all events planned for Sunday.

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.

Jobs are few in the community and are mostly in the public sector. Commercial polar bear hunts are one of the few industries.