01/10/2012 01:52 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Northern Ontario Small Plane Crash: 4 Confirmed Dead In North Spirit Lake Tragedy

NORTH SPIRIT LAKE, Ont. - Residents of a northern Ontario reserve where a plane crashed into a lake Tuesday frantically tried to douse the flaming wreckage with snow but couldn't save four of the people trapped inside.

Darcy Keesick of the North Spirit Lake First Nation was one of the people who rushed to the crash. He said it happened during a blinding snowstorm.

"You couldn't see across the lake," he said.

As word spread about what happened, Keesick was one of many who fought through deep snow on foot to get to the scene to help. People tried to put the flames out with snow while others gouged a hole in the lake to try to pump water onto the burning plane, he said.

"It wouldn't go out," he said. "They couldn't do it anymore because the snow was starting to get saturated with fuel."

One person survived and was transported to a Winnipeg hospital where he was listed in stable condition.

Tracy Shead was in shock when she heard about the crash. Her husband, Brian Shead, 36, works for Aboriginal Strategies Inc., an administrative service for First Nations based in Winnipeg.

She told CTV Winnipeg that at first, it was believed he had died. But then Shead got the news that her husband was the lone survivor. She said she was told her husband has a fractured face and ankle and a doctor with him told her his vital signs were good and he was awake.

"Relieved, very, very relieved and I can't wait to see him," Shead said.

The crash shook the small community of about 400 people around 400 kilometres north of Dryden, Ont. Band councillor Maggie Kakegamic said the Keystone Air Service plane, flying in from Winnipeg, was carrying five people, including a band worker based in the Manitoba capital.

Another band worker, Martha Campbell, was among the dead, said Kakegamic.

People in the area heard the plane circling and then a "putt-putt" sound before the crash, she said. Residents have never experienced such a tragedy before, she added.

"Everybody is in shock right now," Kakegamic said from the band officer where the phone was ringing constantly. "Everybody is just running around crying because they know those people."

Kakegamic said Shead is a friend of hers.

"I went and saw him. He said, 'I'll be OK.' I hope he is. He's one of our workers. They're monitoring him right now."

The Transportation Safety Board said the plane crashed at around 10 a.m. local time. Investigators were on their way, but didn't expect to arrive until Wednesday morning.

Peter Hildebrand, the board's manager of regional operations, said investigators hadn't had a chance to talk to Shead.

It wasn't clear what caused the crash, he said. 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 and there wasn't any radio contact with the plane after it left Winnipeg.

"We don't know, because of the limitations of communication, whether it was on approach or overshoot at the time, or what it's situation was," Hildebrand said.

George Riopka, spokesman for Keystone Air Service, said details were sketchy other than the plane hit the ice north of the airport. It was too soon to know whether the crash was caused by mechanical failure, he said.

"We don't know what caused it at this point."

Witnesses said the plane was trying to land during a severe snowstorm, but Riopka said there was nothing to indicate the weather was poor.

"The weather was flyable," he said, although he added Keystone only had general weather information for the area which includes North Spirit Lake. "The weather was acceptable according to the reports that the company had."

The airline is providing grief counselling for the victims' families and will wait for the Transportation Safety Board to conclude its investigation, he said.

Condolences poured in from neighbouring reserves. Grand Chief Stan Beardy, head of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation in northern Ontario, said thoughts and prayers were going out to all who were grappling with "this sudden and very terrible tragedy."

"While we are not yet aware of the identity of the victims, or the details surrounding this tragic event, it is yet another unfortunate reminder of the perils faced by many First Nations and other travellers who depend on air transportation as their lifeline between northern and remote communities and major urban centres," he said in a statement.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo also offered condolences to the families and communities of those killed in the crash.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the leadership and citizens of North Spirit Lake First Nation, as well as our brothers and sisters across Treaty 9 and Treaty 5 territory impacted by this tragedy."

— By Chinta Puxley and Steve Lambert in Winnipeg