10/28/2011 09:05 EDT | Updated 12/28/2011 05:12 EST

Janick Gilbert Dead: Soldier From CFB Trenton Dies After Nunavut Rescue Attempt


IGLOOLIK, Nunavut - An Arctic hamlet's joy has turned to sorrow after a military airman died while rescuing a father and son who had been stranded for two days during a walrus hunt in the stormy, frigid waters of Hecla Strait.

Sgt. Janick Gilbert parachuted out of an aircraft with two other search and rescue technicians into the sea to save the pair. Gilbert didn't survive.

"At the time, we (were) happy about two local hunters being brought back," said Celestino Uyarak, a community official in Igloolik, Nunavut, from where the hunters set out Wednesday.

"Later, we learned that one of the rescuers couldn't be revived and we were very touched by this. Everyone is touched by this."

Celebrations usually mark the successful return of hunters who have had close calls on the land or water. Not this time.

"We can't do this," said Celestino Uyarak. "We cannot do that due to respect of this young man and the families somewhere in southern Canada. It's a tragedy, big tragedy."

Rose Ulayak said her step-father, David Aqqiaruq, returned home happy to be rescued alive but blames himself for Gilbert's death.

"He said it's his fault. He was very scared."

Aqqiaruq and his 17-year-old son, Lester, set out in their open boat Wednesday morning. The weather was fair, and they notified hamlet officials where they were headed — a popular walrus-hunting spot about 90 minutes out of Igloolik.

The pair were expected back before nightfall. But they ran into trouble, said Rose Ulayak. The water was freezing and quickly thickening into ice. "They got stuck and the motors were frozen."

When they failed to return by about 8 p.m., a community search party was organized. Two boats set out in the dark.

They spent six unsuccessful hours searching, said Celestino Uyarak. They almost ran out of fuel, and one boat had to tow the other back to shore.

Searching resumed at dawn Thursday, but the weather had deteriorated badly.

Winds were gusting up to 70 kilometres per hour, and there was blowing snow. "At this time of the season, it doesn't take much for the wind to make waves," said Celestino Uyarak.

The military rescue crew from Trenton, Ont., joined the search about 5 a.m. in a C-130 Hercules airplane.

RCMP said the crew found the hunters that morning. The condition of one of them was deteriorating.

A radio, supplies and life-raft were dropped down to the pair. But their communication signal eventually faded. And at 5 p.m., Gilbert and two other search-and-rescue specialists parachuted into the water to help.

The military said Gilbert was "unsuccessful" parachuting into the water. The RCMP indicated he was found non-responsive in the water.

He died before a Cormorant helicopter from CFB Gander in Newfoundland arrived to pick up the group, about three hours later. The cause of death has not been released.

Maj. Colin Duncan at CFB Trenton said search crews know there are inherent dangers with every mission, regardless of the weather. In this case, the weather was very severe.

"I would suggest this particular mission, while not pushing the limits — it was extremely challenging," he said.

The incident is under investigation, said Trenton's base commander, Col. Sean Friday. He added the sequence of events will be examined, as well as whether any rescue equipment may have malfunctioned.

The two other rescue specialists were not injured, and the two hunters were treated in an Iqaluit hospital for hypothermia and released.

The entire hamlet is grateful and deeply moved by Gilbert's sacrifice, said Celestino Uyarak.

"I've been receiving calls from the local hunters, from their family members, to see if somehow we can reach the young man's parents, just for condolences," he said. "It's a big loss and we are very sorry about what happened."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper added his praises.

"Sgt. Gilbert was an extremely brave Canadian who made the ultimate sacrifice while proudly serving his country," he said in a news release.

Harper noted that Canada's vast landscape makes it one of the most challenging in the world in which to conduct search and rescue operations. There are 160 search and rescue technicians who respond to about 8,000 emergencies each year, covering 15 million square kilometres of land and sea that stretches from the U.S. border to the North Pole.

Concerns about search and rescue in the North have been increasing for years.

Last January, Maj. Tony Balasevicius wrote in the Canadian Military Journal that there has been little improvement in the area since 1991, when a Hercules transport place crashed 30 kilometres from Alert on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island.

In March, a Senate report on the Arctic came to similar conclusions. It said the need for search and rescue in the North is on the rise and response times are too slow given that rescue crews are based almost entirely in southern Canada.

Harper has said it's impossible to have at-the-ready resources available throughout the Canadian Arctic.

"Thank you to all of those who risk their lives on search-and-rescue missions in our vast territory with its extreme conditions," Premier Eva Aariak said in a statement.

Other military officials also issued their condolences to Gilbert's family. Born in Baie-Comeau, Que., Gilbert was a husband and father who spent the past 13 years doing search and rescue work.

He was considered one of the best at his job, said Lt.-Col. Joel Roy in Winnipeg.

"I would have trusted my life any day in his hands."

Gilbert talked previously about the dangers of his work and the need to be constantly training for rescues in the water.

In a 2008 story posted on the National Defence website, Gilbert said: "When rescuing survivors of marine disasters, more often than not, the weather is less than ideal."

— By Chris Purdy and Bob Weber in Edmonton, with files from CJTN and CJBQ

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version mixed up the first and last names of Celestino Uyarak.