The Downing of Flight 236
This is the true story of the airplane crash I was in with my mother.
My mum once told me we were living a great adventure.
"When you grow up," she said, "you'll be grateful for the memories!"
She was right.
December 29, 1975.
Sunset: 4:21 p.m.
We watched a snowflake fall on the runway at Edmonton Municipal Airport.
5:15 p.m. The Decision.
It was already dark. The 15-seat Beechcraft 99 was still being held on the tarmac by the tower. We were over an hour behind schedule and hadn't even boarded yet.
9 passengers, including me (age 7) and my mum (age 49), were waiting to fly from Edmonton to Slave Lake. Some of us intended to continue to Peace River.
I knew the adults were making a big decision because they were gathered and acting very serious. Their voices carried urgency, concerns, and convictions.
The tower was worried about “marginal” weather – meaning a storm was likely to roll in – but the passengers thought the plane could outrun it.
They even discussed it with the pilot and co-pilot. Shortly after that, the tower gave the go-ahead.
We were to fly to Slave Lake, consult an updated weather forecast, and then decide whether to keep going.
5:40 p.m. Flying North.
The seats in a Beechcraft 99 are in two rows of 6 plus 3 across the very back, past the door. My mum and I saved the ones in the back for a woman, Susan Wilson, whose leg was in a cast.
We sat across the aisle from each other, just ahead of the back door. I liked my seat because I could see the red light on the wingtip through the window.
For a while after takeoff, we could see headlights on the highways below us. As we got farther north, there were fewer people and even fewer roads.
After 20 minutes or so, the only things visible on the ground were tiny silhouettes of trees along the edges of star-lit snowy fields. Eventually, even the starlight went out, leaving only the light on the wingtip.
The plane was small enough that passengers could see into the cockpit. The pilots, Bill Grosenick and Banshi Ghelani, wore shirts that were slightly iridescent in the lights of the instrument panel.
A few minutes later, snowflakes started zipping past us like tiny shooting stars. They were few at first, but the numbers grew. It wasn’t long until the passing snow reflected a little halo around the red light.
Then, wave after wave of snow came. The plane lurched ever so slightly after each one. The halo flickered until the light was blocked out completely. After a while, only faint reflections of cabin lights could be seen in my window.
8:29 p.m. Landing Gear.
9 Miles Northwest of Slave Lake, Alberta.
The routine approach into the airstrip was over the lake, but the weather was closing in. So, the captain opted to come in at a different angle, hoping to land sooner. Instead, we would fly over the Swan Hills.
The pilot radioed ahead to say that we were about to begin our final approach. Some of the passengers perked up when we heard the landing gear being lowered. There were even a couple of bumps that felt like we were touching down...
It wasn’t the runway.
We were hitting treetops.
The plane banked towards my side. The silhouette of a treetop shot past my window. The wingtip was suddenly gone.
Everything instantly became extremely violent. We careened into the thick forest and stopped dead. Nose first. Upside down. Engulfed in flames.
We were dangling by our seatbelts and fire was licking the windows. Everyone was screaming. Everyone.
"They spoke of the tall flames broiling the fuselage of their smashed plane, of the acrid, choking smoke, of the impact of the crash itself."
Smoke was slithering around our seats. Somehow, fire was getting in.
We immediately started dropping to the ceiling. Most passengers released their seat buckles. I was little and easily slipped out of my seatbelt. My mum's burned through, and she fell beside me.
People started looking for a way out and helping each other.
31-year-old Daryl Reimer was knocked unconscious and still hanging by his seatbelt. Three passengers got him down.
24-year-old Grant Johnstone tried to go forward but the cockpit was crushed. Someone asked about the pilots. We all looked to him. His jaw was slack until he spoke.
All he said was, they would get out last.
Someone tried the back door but the latch was stuck. We felt trapped! One woman tried to kick out a window. My mum told her to stop for fear of letting in more flames.
Then, somehow, the woman in the cast was able to release the latch on the back door! Except, it was still too heavy to move on her own. 27-year-old John Bahrynowski helped Grant kick it open.
The two young men made a great team, leading the decision-making and helping people out of the plane. Susan, the woman in the cast, might never have made it out if it wasn’t for them. They carried Daryl Riemer away from the wreck.
"Within a minute of the last evacuation, the entire fuselage burst into flame."
Those of us still in the plane could feel the flames getting hotter. Something was burning my shins.
Outside, Grant shouted to get clear because the plane seemed likely to explode.
I climbed onto the doorframe. A smoldering, melting seatbelt was stuck to my pantlegs. My mum lifted me by my armpits and threw me to John, outside. He ripped the belt away while my mum clambered out. At last, she took me back and we headed for the woods.
Two women from Slave Lake, Miriam Anderson, and Maureen Pletsch, got out next. This left a 67-year-old man standing where I had stood just a moment before.
Suddenly Grant started yelling, “You've got to jump, NOW!”
Dr. Wood dove past us into the snow.
With everyone else out, Grant tried to go back for the pilot and co-pilot but he couldn’t even get close. The heat was far too intense. If Dr. Wood had not jumped when he did, he would have been cooked alive. Nobody in the cockpit could have survived.
We scrambled into the forest. Everyone hid in shadows where the heat couldn’t reach us. My mum and I found a spot behind a fallen tree sticking out of a snowbank. From there, we could look back somewhat safely but even from 25 feet away the heat was incredible.
Seconds later, fire roared through the inside of the plane and the whole thing went up in flames.
8:40 p.m. In Shock.
"All nine passengers were seriously injured while both pilots were killed."
We were all trembling and sweating. Everyone was injured. Some were light-headed.
In the first few minutes after our escape, we avoided the heat.
Then we warmed our hands in it.
I was crying.
There were third-degree burns on my shins. My mum told me to stay put and went looking for first aid.
As I waited for her to come back, I choked on my tears and looked at the space around us.
The fact is we crashed during a heavy snowfall but you would never have known it close to the burning wreck. The searing heat was vaporizing the falling snow, turning it to fog above the treetops.
The air at ground level was strangely calm. The snow cover slightly muted our voices as well as the sounds of the burning plane.
Above us were giant silhouettes of trees along the edges of the fire-lit fog.
A little farther into the woods, there was a falling mist. It formed a ring around the entire crash site. Shadows penetrated it.
Gazing into the ring of mist induced a floating sensation. My tears began to ease.
Beyond the ring was a dark infinity of snow, scrub, poplars, and pines. Out there, the temperature was below freezing. Without proper clothing, hypothermia could take less than an hour to set in.
The tail of the plane broke off during the crash and landed just inside the ring of mist. There was enough open space behind it to gather. It provided a place to sit.
Most of us made our way over to the broken tail. Only Dr. Wood stayed behind with Susan, where Grant and John set her down.
“Do we have a first aid kit?”
“It was in the cockpit.”
“Does the airport know we’ve crashed?”
“They’ll figure it out and send someone.”
“Do they know where we are?”
“We must be close. I heard the landing gear.”
“I overheard the pilot say we were approaching from a different angle.”
“What if the storm doesn’t let up? They might not be able to find us.”
“If they haven’t found us by morning, we’ll send someone to get help.”
“I think we should make a fire right here, to stay warm. We don’t know if it’s safe by the plane.”
One of the men began preparing a spot to make a fire. Two other adults started gathering wood. Daryl was still unconscious.
My mum went back to speak with Dr. Wood.
I stood out of their way; my tears almost gone. Watching. Listening. Trembling.
9:30 p.m. The Search.
Slave Lake Airfield.
We were scheduled to land at 9:30 but in trying to outrun the snowstorm, the pilots pushed the plane to its limits.
When they radioed in, we were almost an hour ahead of schedule. Except, nobody on the ground understood that we were approaching from the northwest.
"When the plane failed to arrive and a quick check of radar and air-radio stations in the area did not turn up any sign of the missing aircraft, the Canadian Forces rescue co-ordination centre was alerted."
Our plane was equipped with an emergency beacon. The blizzard interfered with the signal.
Slave Lake Airfield had a single runway. Aircraft normally flew in low over the lake from the northeast.
Without the beacon to go by, the rescue co-ordinators guessed that we went down near the shore, or somewhere on the ice.
10:00 p.m. Ad-Hoc Triage.
Inside the ring of mist.
Our little campfire burned for a couple of hours. During that time, the heat from the burning plane lost much of its intensity and the ring of mist slowly shrank.
“We need something to dress these wounds.”
“Did any luggage make it?”
The campfire went out. “Dammit!”
“Is it safe to check the plane?”
Grant went to have a look while John tried to relight the campfire.
When Grant came back, he asked for help retrieving luggage. The airline stowed it in the back of the plane, but it likely fell out when the tail broke off. Somehow, a few suitcases landed in a pile near a broken-off engine. The bags looked intact. The engine was still smoldering.
4 adults formed a chain to quickly pass the luggage away from the wreck. Grant retrieved the suitcases one by one, using them to shield his face from the heat radiating from the fuselage.
We soon had sweaters and jackets, and Maureen was helping Dr. Wood tear shirts into strips of fabric.
It was mis-reported that we sat around that little fire all night. We got it started but after a while, it just wouldn’t stay lit.
The mist put our little campfire out again.
That’s when the adults realized it was probably safe to get closer to the plane. We could finally come out from behind the trees and the tail to warm our hands and feet.
After Dr. Wood dressed the burns on my legs, my mum took me to sit with Susan. She was on a log that was just far enough away not to get scorched, and just close enough to dry her cast.
As we sat together, the snowfall ended. The fog, the silhouettes, and the mist slowly disappeared.
After a while, there was a single star in the sky.
12:30 a.m. The Signal.
Above the Swan Hills.
Volunteers from Slave Lake were searching for us on the frozen lake and along the shore. Canadian Forces Air Rescue planes were deployed over the area, listening for our radio beacon, and visually searching for any signs of a crash.
Their efforts were focused several miles from us. They were getting farther away.
At 12:30 a.m., a Pacific Western Airlines flight picked up the signal from our emergency transmitter. It was faint, but it was enough for the rescue co-ordination centre to go on. They immediately redirected the planes, dispatched ambulances, and radioed the search party.
"They heard planes overhead and finally one dropped flares."
The fire was getting smaller. We kept moving closer to it as the night dragged on.
“I don’t think the plane will burn much longer.”
“We’ll need to light another fire if it goes out.”
Some of the adults began, wearily, looking for firewood nearby.
“We’re going to need shelter.”
“Does anyone know how to build a lean-to?”
“Hey… do you hear that?”
At first, the faint sound of airplane engines seemed like a trick of the mind. But at about 2:00 a.m. the engines got loud and clear. A Canadian Forces Air Rescue plane flew almost directly overhead.
“They can see the fire!”
“They know where we are!”
When the rescue plane was right above us, it dropped a flare. We watched it land somewhere downhill and far away from us.
I worried they wouldn’t find us after all.
The rescue plane circled back and dropped another bright white flare. It landed about 100 feet from the crash site, lighting up the nearby forest for a few seconds.
I nearly fainted.
2:30 a.m. Rescuers.
At the crash site.
About half an hour later, we could hear several engines through the woods. The sound wasn’t constant. Still, we could hear them.
We huddled together silently. Listening. Hoping.
The crash site was about 3/4 of a mile (1.2 km) down a local trail. There was a wooded ridge between it and where we went down, throwing the noise upwards.
Suddenly a couple of Bomardier Bombis, a Caterpillar Tractor, a Jeep, and a bunch of snowmobiles came bursting around the ridge. Their headlights lit up the entire area.
Altogether, there were 20 volunteers in the search party. Their smiles were unforgettable. They wore orange snowsuits, dark green toques, thick black gloves, and rugged snow boots.
One rescuer got out of his Bombi and started walking towards my Mum and me.
I finally fainted.
My next memory is in the back of a vehicle. We were bouncing over rough ground and a rescuer was checking the dressing on my shins.
I saw that my mum was there and I passed out again.
According to the official reports, the plane stopped burning about hour later.
December 30, 1975. Unanswered Questions.
Slave Lake Hospital.
Sunrise: 9:06 a.m.
It was just after Christmas, and most of the hospital staff were on holiday. There were only three regular staff members in town. They were all willing to put in extra time.
Sometime before dawn, the RCMP got their dogs and went looking for the pilots. Officially, they were still missing. Their remains had to be confirmed for the official status to change.
I woke up sometime in the late afternoon with proper bandages on my shins. There was nobody else in the room and the door was open.
I could hear people down the hall. So, I wiggled out of the sheets, crawled to the foot of the bed, and climbed down.
My little blue suitcase was there. Some of my clothes were folded on a chair. I was in my underwear and a hospital gown, so I put them on.
There was also a brand-new pair of thick white socks. They felt great on my feet.
I got a little excited, ready to play. I noticed that the floors were shiny and smooth.
I ran down the hallway as fast as I could and slid. I came to a stop outside a room with a few passengers still in their beds.
There were other people there too. I heard my mum talking, so I peeked around the edge of the door.
Reporters were asking all kinds of questions.
As the passengers recalled events, their voices carried fear, courage, relief, and gratitude. Sometimes, they even laughed.
They asked if there was any news about the cause of the crash.
The timbre of the reporters’ voices changed. It became frustrated with a tinge of resentment.
An official investigation was underway. The RCMP had cordoned off the crash site and wouldn’t answer questions. The Ministry of Transport wasn’t letting the Lakeview Leader (a local newspaper) print pictures of the pilots, even though they were both from Slave Lake.
January 5, 1976. Rumors and Buzz.
Peace River, Alberta.
Everyone got home in the first week of January, except Daryl.
My mum and I were in Peace River when rumors started circulating that even though the Beechcraft 99 Light Aircraft was regarded as top of the line by pilots, none of them liked it very much.
In our case the plane was almost brand-new. Even so, it had mechanical problems. Just 6 weeks prior to our crash, the front landing gear got stuck on the way into Slave Lake Airfield and couldn’t be lowered.
Captain Grosenick flew it in circles for 2 hours to burn off fuel and lighten the plane enough to land on the back wheels only.
Fortunately, nobody was injured. According to the official records, he managed to keep the nose up and make an almost perfect landing, all things considered.
October 12, 1976. Answers.
"Bayview dispatched the Beech 99 aircraft on a scheduled instrument flight with unserviceable flight instruments and carried out an inadequate maintenance procedure."
10 months later, a report was leaked from the Ministry of Transportation in Edmonton. It said the pilots were using a “non-standard instrument approach”, weather conditions were unacceptable for flying, and official safety standards had not been met.
The plane’s gyroscope wasn’t working correctly. There was no way to tell the horizon from the instruments. The compass was off by 30 degrees because of an electrical problem.
It seems the captain and co-pilot had no choice but to make a visual landing in a blizzard.
Bayview Air Service was found at fault for the crash. There was an insurance settlement. My mum invested it for when I turned 18. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to rent an apartment and buy some clothes for my first job when I moved out.
October 4, 2007. The Gift.
Victoria, British Columbia.
Years later, we were both living in Victoria, B.C.
The day before my 38th birthday, my mum phoned me with bad news. A doctor had informed her that her Alzheimer’s was getting worse. Her memory was going. She would soon need special care.
She told me she had been planning a surprise for my 40th birthday, but the diagnosis meant she needed to act on it sooner. She asked if we could go someplace special. So, I booked us a table for lunch at a nice restaurant downtown.
The next day she took a taxi and met me out front. She was dressed mostly in white, with a delicate floral scarf she saved for special occasions.
In her hand was a large paper bag with a string handle.
As luck would have it, we were the only people there that day.
When we finished our main course and the plates were cleared, my mum reached into the paper bag and got out a large green 3-ring binder. She slid it across the linen tablecloth to me.
It was packed full of photographs and slides, keepsakes and cards, and newspaper clippings. Together, they told the story of our adventures in the Canadian North and of course, the airplane crash.
We spent the afternoon sipping coffee, looking at what she had saved. We reminded each other of the places we’d been, the pets we loved, and the people we knew.
My mum put a lot of care into making that binder over the years, and every article was perfectly trimmed. That is, except for the articles about the crash.
She was clearly shaking when she cut them out.
“You were never afraid to fly again, were you?” she asked me.
There was so much hope in her eyes.
“No,” I said, “flying was always my favorite part of the adventure.”
“I’m glad we went on it together,” she said.
R.I.P. Ruth Muriel Nuttall
March 23, 1926 to November 7, 2014.
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