POLITICS
04/11/2012 12:33 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds announce third search and rescue chopper for Labrador after boy's death

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - After the death of a 14-year-old Labrador boy raised concerns about search and rescue services, the military announced Wednesday that it's adding a third Griffon helicopter to the fleet at 5 Wing Goose Bay.

Two Griffon choppers were both briefly out of commission for maintenance or repairs when the military was first asked to help in the search for Burton Winters on Jan. 30, the morning after he went missing while snowmobiling outside Makkovik.

The military said bad weather was also a factor and that a Cormorant helicopter wasn't dispatched because it might have been needed for a marine rescue.

A Griffon and an Aurora plane arrived to help on Jan. 31 after local searchers made a second call to the military for help. But the lost boy's body was found on the frozen Labrador Sea the next day, about a 19-kilometre walk over jagged ice from his abandoned snowmobile.

In a news release, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the extra Griffon will "have an immediate positive impact on the operational readiness of the base and provide flexibility to decision-makers on the use of Canadian Forces assets in the region."

Members of the deceased boy's family have publicly said it was a blow while they were already grieving to hear that the military didn't send a primary-asset Cormorant to search for Burton because it might have been needed at sea.

Randy Edmunds, a family friend and provincial Liberal politician who was aboard the civilian chopper that found the boy's body, said another Griffon is a step in the right direction, although it's a second-string rescue chopper.

He and others want a public inquiry into the handling of the search for Burton. Both MacKay and Premier Kathy Dunderdale have deflected those calls.

"The system failed in the case of young Burton," Edmunds said in an interview. "That was made very, very clear.

"If you want to fix something, you first have to find out what went wrong with it."

Edmunds is among critics who don't believe weather kept the military from responding when first called on the morning of Jan. 30.

"I've seen these Griffon helicopters, let alone the Cormorants, come in zero visibility."

Last month, MacKay changed a policy that required local ground searchers to call back the military if aircraft were unable to respond to the first call and help was still required. Under the change, Defence officials will check back with local rescue co-ordinators to see if aircraft are still needed when an immediate response isn't possible.

Edmunds said local searchers never knew the call-back protocol existed.

He plans to write to MacKay to thank him for the extra Griffon — an additional resource that the minister and his spokesman denied was coming in recent weeks.

"I think, given the whole tragedy and the aftermath and the public pressure from the province, that the next time there's a call for assistance, I'm sure they will be there as fast as they can," Edmunds said of the military.

Local searchers had asked for air support late on the night that Burton Winters went missing.

But RCMP Chief Supt. Andrew Boland told a news conference in February that protocol was "to have aircraft available as soon as we can the next light."

Footprints indicated Burton Winters laid down and died after walking about 19 kilometres in freezing temperatures and blowing snow.

Edmunds said he'll always wonder if the boy might have been rescued that night, several hours after he was last seen in the afternoon.

"If (aircraft) had been there with heat-seeking capabilities, would he have been saved? I mean, I can't say yes he would have, but it's something we'll always wonder."