Email this articleE-mail this story  Discuss this articleWrite letter to editor  Discuss this articleOrder a classified ad  Print this page

Peel River tragedy

Philippe Morin
Northern News Services

Fort McPherson (Nov 06/06) - Members of the Fort McPherson community are reeling after a snowmobile accident claimed one of their own and the search for another continues.

"They were real close friends, like brothers. They did everything together, Whenever they needed each other's help, they could depend on each other," said Bernice Francis, a grieving mother.
NNSL Photo/graphic

Fort McPherson has been shocked by the death of Ernest William Francis, 31, above, in a tragic snowmobiling accident. His best friend Gary James Koe, 27, also went missing on Oct. 31. The pair went through the thin ice of the Peel River. - photos courtesy of the Koe and Francis families

NNSL Photo/graphic

Her son Ernest William Francis died and his best friend Gary James Koe went missing Oct. 31.

"We are devastated," she said.

On Halloween night, at around 8 p.m., Ernest and his friend Koe went snowmobiling on a friend's machine.

When the men were seen on the Peel River - which only recently froze and can barely support a person's weight - police were called to intercept them.

By the time they arrived, however, it was too late.

Police said it looked like the snowmobile had crashed through the ice and the men had fallen in the water.

Ernest Francis, 31, was soon found and brought to the Fort McPherson Health centre where he was pronounced dead.

Koe, 27, is still missing, and volunteers are scouring the sides of the Peel River looking for him.

Fort McPherson's mayor, Rebecca Blake, said the accident has caused terrible grief in the community of about 900 people.

She said many volunteers looking for Koe are the same people who looked for local elder William Teya when he went missing Sept. 21.

"In a community this size, we pretty much know everyone," she said.

Francis said her son and Koe were close friends. She described the two men as hunting buddies, who had known each other many years and came to rely on each other.

"They were both experienced on the land," she said, adding they were both also familiar with snowmobiles.

As for why the men would venture onto a barely-frozen river at night, she said she believed they had been drinking.

"I know for sure that alcohol was involved the night before," she said.

Francis added her son had no children, but will be sorely missed by his father Albert, brother Robert Jr. and adopted sister Effie.

Doris Koe, who is Gary's adoptive sister, said he will also be missed by a large family.

She said Gary had been adopted into a family with five sisters and two brothers, and was very well liked in the community.

"He was a traditional man who lived on the land," she said, adding he worked in the logging industry.

She said people in the community had been bringing food, offering money and calling her with emotional support.

"There has been so much help from this community of Fort McPherson," she said.

"There have been overflowing phone calls from all over the Delta, Old Crow, Whitehorse, Vancouver, Yellowknife..."

Sergeant Merle Carpenter, who oversees the Fort McPherson RCMP, also said the crash was a tragic reminder to stay off the ice.

In a press release, he wrote the accident should remind people to be safe and never venture on newly frozen rivers, even if they look safe at first.

"This incident is a tragic reminder that the ice is extremely thin on the river. You can't judge the thickness and this makes it treacherous," Carpenter wrote.

According to the RCMP release, Francis is the 12th NWT resident to die in a water-related accident this year.

And while volunteers have said they'll continue looking until Koe is found, it is clear they face difficult work.

"I got as far as the creek, but then I had to turn back," said Francis.

Bernice said a funeral service for her son was scheduled for Nov. 6.