What was supposed to be a routine patient pickup in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario proved to be a deadly venture for two pilots and two paramedics flying out of Moosonee early this morning, when their helicopter crashed shortly after departure.
Ornge, Ontario's air ambulance, on Friday confirmed the names of the four who died in the crash:
- Captain Don Filliter, 54, of Skead, Ont.
- First Officer Jacques Dupuy, 43, of Otterburn-Park, Que.
- Paramedic Dustin Dagenais, 34, of Moose Factory, Ont.
- Paramedic Chris Snowball, 38, of Burlington, Ont.
"Their lives were lost serving the public, and we owe a deep debt of gratitude," said Dr. Andrew McCallum, president and CEO of Ornge.
The helicopter, one of six Sikorsky S76 choppers in Ornge's fleet, was built in 1980 and was certified by Transport Canada, McCallum said at an afternoon news conference.
Ornge's five remaining S76 helicopters have been taken out of service for the time being out of an "abundance of caution," he added.
Ornge said contracted carriers, its own fixed wing aircraft and local EMS services are still available to transport patients, including the patient in Attawapiskat who was supposed to be picked up by the ill-fated helicopter.
McCallum said Ornge does not yet have any details on what happened before the helicopter crashed, adding that Transportation Safety Board officials are on the scene and the search for the aircraft's cockpit voice recorder is underway.
'Everything was normal'
The accident happened at about 12:11 a.m. ET after the helicopter departed from the Ornge Moosonee base.
The last voice contact with the crew was prior to the aircraft's departure.
Weather at the time was overcast, Ornge chief operating officer Rob Giguere said during a morning press conference. There was good visibility and only light rain.
When asked about reports the aircraft “blew up” after takeoff, Giguere said, "We’re not aware of that report," but he noted the "wreckage is 0.7 nautical miles from the departure point.”
"Everything was normal," Giguere said, adding the men handling the helicopter were a "professional crew." The captain was "well-experienced" and "well-known."
Cause of the accident isn't known. It will be investigated by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Ontario Provincial Police earlier said they would also investigate.
Ornge said it will co-operate fully with investigators.
Victims were well known
Details are still emerging about the victims.
John Snowball said his son, Chris, was the sort of person who always wanted to help those in need and said his son died doing the work he loved best.
Chris Snowball had been working as a paramedic in Nova Scotia and Ontario for the past 19 years, he said.
The paramedic, who is survived by his wife and three children, had long aspired to work for Ornge and had worked a series of three-month contracts. He was a week away from starting a more stable assignment in Thunder Bay, Ont., his father said.
Ryan Gould said Dagenais, his friend and co-worker, would "go above and beyond to make anybody more comfortable or feel more at ease."
"What made him good? Just his whole way. One of those guys that everybody wants to be around, makes everybody feel good," Gould said.
Dagenais was married with a 10-month-old daughter.
Filliter and Dupuy were both married and both had two children.
McCallum said Filliter was a respected pilot with more than 20 years of flying experience and was also an aircraft maintenance engineer. He had joined Ornge in March.
Dupuy had flown all over the world, McCallum said, including as a bush pilot in Quebec. He had flown with Ornge since August 2012.
Premier, PM offer condolences
"Everybody at Ornge is deeply saddened by this tragic incident, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives," McCallum said. "We will do whatever we can to support them at this difficult time."
Ornge said the crash site was spotted from the air by search and rescue workers, who immediately started their trek to reach the aircraft.
Provincial police and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre were sent to locate the helicopter after the accident.
Premier Kathleen Wynne said she was devastated to learn of the fatal crash.
"The pilots and paramedics of Ornge provide lifesaving services in every region of this province, and my thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of these brave individuals," she said in a statement.
"They lost their lives ensuring the people of this province receive the help they need. Their service and sacrifice will be honoured and remembered."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted: "Condolences to the families of the four victims of the northern Ontario air ambulance crash last night. You are in my thoughts and prayers."
Health Minister Deb Matthews issued the following statement: “I am heartbroken at the tragic news of the loss of two pilots and two paramedics in an Ornge air ambulance crash early this morning near Moosonee."
Greg Rickford, Conservative MP for Kenora, Ont., made a tearful statement in the House of Commons Friday about the Ornge crash.
"I ask all members to join me in paying tribute to this tragic loss of these four lives and those who take such particular risks to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians across this immense country," said Rickford, who worked as a nurse and a lawyer in First Nations communities in northwest Ontario.
"We share their loss, our hearts are with the family [and] friends."