- Associated Press - Monday, August 22, 2011

RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut (AP) — Within minutes after the Boeing 737-200 passenger jet slammed into a hill in Canada‘s remote Arctic region, military helicopters were landing at the crash site to evacuate the three survivors of the crash that killed 12 people. In an unlikely coincidence, several hundred military personnel in the region preparing for a mock airliner crash training exercise suddenly found themselves plunged into a real rescue mission.

First Air Flight 6560, a charter, crashed Saturday afternoon in foggy weather as it was approaching the airport near the tiny hamlet of Resolute Bay in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Local residents rushed to the scene in their all-terrain vehicles only to find a massive military rescue operation under way.

Officials say the rapid response may have increased the chances for the three survivors among the 15 people on board the plane, which crashed in rough terrain in one of the most remote regions of Canada.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain with those affected by Saturday’s tragic plane crash,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. “Thanks to the herculean efforts of first responders, including members of the Canadian Armed Forces, lives were saved that otherwise might have been lost.”

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Constable Angelique Dignard said two of the survivors — a 7-year-old girl and a 48-year-old man — were transported to a hospital in Ottawa from a medical facility in the Nunavut territorial capital of Iqaluit. A 23-year-old woman remains in a hospital in Iqaluit.

Constable Dignard said all three were listed in stable condition Sunday, but she would not comment on the nature of their injuries.

National Defense spokesman Daniel Blouin said the military had been planning to stage a mock airliner crash rescue on Monday. A temporary base had been set up just outside Resolute Bay, about 1.2 miles from the crash site, so the military was able to reach the crash site within 10 minutes of the accident, Mr. Blouin said.

He said almost 500 military personnel were already in the community to take part in the military’s annual northern training exercise, Operation Nanook, which now has been suspended until at least Tuesday.

“It’s not often that this level of response is here at this location,” Mr. Blouin said. “The fact that we were able to get four birds in the air literally within minutes of the crash happening and use the helicopters to bring the people back to our unit medical center, to say that it helped is certainly safe to say.”

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak said the outcome for the survivors could have been worse if the military had not been there.

“They were just hours away from practicing what actually happened in real life,” Ms. Aariak said. “It’s good to hear the response team living in Resolute Bay had extra help from the military because in such remote communities it is always hard to get the level of response that is required.”

First Air spokesman Christopher Ferris, his voice near breaking, said the cause of the accident had not been determined yet. He said all four crew members were killed.

“Our thoughts and focus are with the families and friends of the passengers and crew and the community of Resolute Bay,” said Mr. Ferris, who also thanked the Canadian military for its immediate response.

On its website, First Air says it serves the cargo and travel needs of Canada‘s Arctic region, connecting 30 remote northern communities with some of Canada‘s bigger cities.

Police have yet to identify any of those killed in the crash. A neighbor identified one of the victims as Ches Tibbo, a carpenter from Harbour Mille, Newfoundland, who worked on projects in the Arctic region. Pam Pardy Ghent said her neighbor had survived a December 2008 plane crash on a flight from Resolute Bay that attempted to land at Cambridge Bay, and spent four hours waiting for help with temperatures dropping to minus-44 degrees Fahrenheit.

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