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Wreckage of the Arctic Sunwest Twin Otter on McDonald Drive in Old Town on Thursday afternoon. - Katherine Hudson/NNSL photo

'It was just a blur'
Old Town residents recount rescue of plane crash victims

Nicole Veerman and Galit Rodan
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 26, 2011

Matthew Grogono was working in his shop Thursday afternoon, when suddenly the power went out and he heard the "very nasty crash" of an out-of-control Arctic Sunwest Twin Otter striking the Aurora Geosciences building next door.

NNSL photo/graphic

Co-pilot Nicole Stacey, along with pilot Trevor Jonasson, lost her life in the Arctic Sunwest flight that crashed in Old Town, Thursday. - NNSL file photo

"Then there was complete silence," he said, noting that it all happened in a span of about three seconds.

"And by that time I was out the front door and half way down the sidewalk and could see that there was a completely stationary aircraft pouring fuel into the middle of the road."

Grogono was among a few others, although he can't remember who or how many, who rushed to the scene and removed victims from the plane. There were nine people on board. The collision claimed the lives of pilot Trevor Jonasson and his first officer Nicole Stacey.

One passenger was medevaced to Edmonton with a back injury Thursday afternoon and six others were sent to Stanton Territorial Hospital. They were in "good condition" Friday afternoon, according to Damien Healy, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Allan Shortt worked alongside Grogono pulling people out of the plane. He was driving to his home in Old Town via McDonald Drive when he saw the plane showing signs of trouble overhead.

"It was just a blur," said Shortt.

"I seen the plane go sideways and then it cartwheeled," he said. "(The plane) was completely vertical up and down, like one wing pointed at the sky, one wing pointed at the ground."

Shortt said it appeared as though the pilot of the Twin Otter floatplane was trying to pull the aircraft up after attempting a landing on the choppy waters of Yellowknife Bay.

"It was a really ugly wind," said Shortt. "(The pilot) bounced and then tried to pull up and take off."

The Twin Otter cleared the Bayside Bed and Breakfast on the east side of the street before its wing clipped the power line, said Shortt. The plane's two floats appear to have hit the Aurora Geosciences building leaving two parallel slash marks on the building before nosediving into an empty lot between the Geosciences building to the south and a condominium to the north.

The aircraft spun, leaving its crushed cockpit facing the bay. The front end of a parked Honda Element appeared damaged beyond repair beneath a wing, but there were no reported injuries on the ground.

The plane landed just short of a rocky outcropping, part of the hill that is home to Pilot's Monument, a memorial to bush pilots and engineers who lost their lives in helping build the North.

"The amazing thing is that ... there was no one in the building, there was no car going by, there were no pedestrians. It missed everything. It just parked itself in a parking lot," said Grogono.

"When I first arrived at the plane, the pilot and co-pilot looked like they were going to take more effort to get out," he said.

"All of us had a considerable trepidation about approaching the airplane, but once I heard people moving around in the plane, I figured it wasn't electrically hot ... and once I demonstrated the aircraft wasn't going to immediately electrocute anyone or blow up, then it seemed that people were more readily receptive to approaching the plane."

Grogono went first to the left cargo door, avoiding leaking fuel and the smoking right engine. He then climbed in and started helping people out of the fuselage.

"The people at the back of the plane were quite dazed, some of them were mobile."

While Grogono helped the passengers, Shortt extinguished the smoking engine. The two men then turned their attention to Stacey and Jonasson in the cockpit.

"I went around to the co-pilot's side," said Shortt. "Matthew was inside fighting with the seatbelt ... Matthew finally got the seatbelt off and I picked her up and I carried her across the street." Volunteers then began CPR, while the two men went back for Jonasson. They then pulled him out and carried him away from the wreckage. CPR was then performed on Jonasson, as well.

Grogono and Shortt both said they don't remember how long it was before emergency services got there, but agreed that it seemed like forever.

"As far as I know, we did everything by the book and appropriately, but it was just time for Trevor to move on," said Grogono.

"It was like a scene from a bad movie there," said Shortt.

The plane was on its way back to Yellowknife from Thor Lake, one of Avalon Rare Metals' exploration camps, about 100 km southeast of Yellowknife.

On board were three senior staff members from the rare metals company. There were also three Avalon investors and a photographer for Up Here magazine.

Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada landed in Yellowknife Friday to begin their investigation.

Coroner Cathy Menard said a post-mortem was scheduled for Jonasson and Stacey but said the results would not be released.

For Grogono, catastrophe has struck twice. He was on a year-long sabbatical from Yellowknife, living in Nova Scotia when Swiss Air flight 111 crashed not more than seven km from his house in 1998, killing 229 people on board.

"I was going there to retreat from previous year of being a political activist in Yellowknife," said Grogono.

"I thought a nice little community in the middle of nowhere with my little quiet beach, before you know it there's pieces of victims floating in my little tranquil beach. It gave me resolve to not wait around for other people to solve problems, you know, do what's appropriate when it's needed."

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