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Two members of the Yellowknife fire department stand at the hole where a dog team went through the ice near Mosher Island on Friday. - photo courtesy of Jennifer Waugh

Ice rescue response criticized
Fire department delayed while dogsledder fought for life in icy waters, says eyewitness; city official says situation made more confusing by mass of people on ice

Simon Whitehouse and Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Residents who watched as a dogsledder struggled to stay above water after his dog team plunged through thin ice on Yellowknife Bay are criticizing the Yellowknife fire department's rescue effort.

Dogsledder gives thanks

Dear editor,

Recently, I had an accident on Yellowknife Bay with my dog team. I miscalculated how close I was to the known bad ice off Mosher Island. It was devastating to lose two good trail companions, Django, a lovable, big-hearted 13-year veteran, and Foxy, the team clown.

My mistake also put at risk the lives of those who helped rescue me. Thank you to all the people who helped. These include: the children who heard me calling for help; my neighbour who stayed near me on the ice and kept me talking and focused; the man who got me to safe ice; the fire department's emergency response team who rescued my dogs; the ambulance crew; the Stanton Territorial Hospital emergency team; Great Slave Animal Hospital; and Qimmiq Kennels. I also want to thank all my friends and neighbours who have shown so much care.

The community support and kindness that are revealed at times like these remind me what a caring, close-knit community Yellowknife can be.

Terry Woolf

One bystander said the responders wasted time focusing on procedure while a civilian took matters into his own hands to save the man.

Jennifer Waugh, a certified team leader with the Yellowknife Search and Rescue, watched from shore behind her house on School Draw Avenue as her dad Victor Waugh pulled the man, identified as longtime Yellowknifer Terry Woolf, onto safe ice with his snowmobile near the northeast corner of Mosher Island.

She said the four-member ice crew was "dilly-dallying over by the (Dettah) ice road entrance" and were focusing more on safety protocols rather than effecting a speedy rescue.

"The fire hall guys were totally unprepared," she said. "They didn't have blankets. The first thing ever in first aid to deal with hypothermia is to have blankets to keep (the person) warm.

"The other thing is that they didn't have a toboggan. If they were going to pull this guy out who'd been in the water for 20 minutes, were they planning to make him walk to shore?"

Dennis Marchiori, the city's director of public safety, explained the crew didn't think it was necessary to bring a sled in this instance because they were told by a caller that the man fell through the ice close to the Dettah road.

Also, he said, it would have taken an extra 10 to 15 minutes to bring the toboggan, which is large enough that a snowmobile is needed to pull it.

"We wanted to make sure we would get to the patient as quickly as possible," Marchiori said.

The city official could not confirm or deny if the rescuers had blankets on them but noted thermal and cotton blankets are kept in every ambulance.

Shawne Kokelj, who was biking across the Dettah ice road with some children when she spotted the dogsledder in distress, said she called the fire department four times while waiting for the fire department rescue team to appear.

She was reluctant to criticize the response but said it seemed like a long while before they appeared on the ice, adding there was a lot of commotion on the shore so it was difficult to tell exactly how much time it took for them to arrive.

"From what I heard they were at the Dettah road access quite quickly, but then it just took time from there," said Kokelj.

The four rescuers paused at the access road, Marchiori explained, because they were unsure where the patient was located.

"The problem was there were so many people on the lake," he said. "There was quite a large number of kite skiers, snowmobilers, people with quads and they were all over."

After some discussion the crew decided to head toward a group of youths that were jumping up and down on the ice. But upon reaching the group they were told the patient was closer to Mosher Island.

With the new information the four rescuers decided to call for backup and a rescue truck, carrying 20,000 various pieces of rescue equipment, was dispatched to a location on shore closer to the patient.

"(The crew) had all the stuff in there if they were going to go down (and assist) but because a snowmobiler took the person out they took the patient straight into an ambulance and transported him to the hospital."

Waugh credited her father for being able to read the ice and determine a safe route to the accident scene to get the man out of the water and to an ambulance waiting on 48 Street. Waugh said the rescue crew tried to convince her father not to go onto the ice, and when he offered them a ride, they refused. They also refused to give him a piece of rope so he could rescue the dog sledder himself as they made their way across the ice.

Victor decided to head back out with his own 5.5-metre long rope to help Woolf out of the water. In the meantime Woolf was able to get his upper body onto a piece of ice and free himself from his ski pants and boots.

"My dad called out to him asking if he could tie a knot or anything and (Woolf) said, 'No,' because obviously his hands were numb," said Waugh.

Somehow Woolf managed to get the rope around himself, and Victor was able to pull him out and then transport him to safety.

Marchiori couldn't say whether the crew tried to convince Victor not to go rescue Woolf. They likely expressed concern about him venturing to an area where the ice was known to be unsafe, he said.

However, Marchiori could confirm that the crew declined a ride from Victor.

"We have what we call standard operating guidelines within the fire division and it's for the safety of our members and the safety of the public," he said. "If we catch a ride with them and one of our firefighters gets injured we're then having to rescue the rescuer so to speak. We've also had situations where people going to go look for other people have gotten lost going to the location."

Still, the firefighters, Marchiori said, plan to go over the situation and improve where they can. Next time they might consider carrying a knife with them in similar situations, he confirmed. In this case it could have been used to help free the dogs, two of which died.

"No one is more critical of our firefighter's work than themselves," Marchiori said.

Terry Woolf declined comment for the story, however, he sent a letter to Yellowknifer ( see sidebar ) admitting he made a bad call sledding so close to the island. He thanked the people who helped rescue him and his dogs, including the Yellowknife fire department.

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