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BOXTOP 22 survivor remembers fatal crash

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October 30, 1991 started as just another day in the Arctic. Operation BOXTOP III/91 was in full swing, with three Hercules flying around the clock to re-supply CFS Alert with fuel. CFS Alert, the most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world, is re-supplied from CFB Trenton by an operation known as BOXTOP.

That day, on board BOXTOP Flight 22, many of the passengers were sleeping or chatting with one another. Master Seaman D.N. “Monty” Montgomery, a member of 771 Communications Research Squadron at the Communications Security Establishment, CF Supplementary Radio System (CFSRS), part of the former CF Communications Command (now the Information Management Group), was about to begin his fourth tour at Alert.

At about 4:25 p.m., the pilot announced that they were on final approach to the airfield. Moments later, things started to go wrong. “The loadmaster, Roland Pitre, told us to put our seatbelts on, and the ride got very bumpy,” recalls Mr. Montgomery. “I was splashed with diesel fuel and hit in the head.”

The aircraft hit a rocky cliff and crashed 16 kilometres south of CFS Alert. Of the 18 passengers and crew, five lost their lives and 13 survived. Twenty-four hours later, MS Montgomery woke up in the wreckage to find that he had an extensive compound fracture to his skull and fingers that were solid blocks of ice.

The survivors were stranded for 47 hours, eventually finding some shelter in the tail section of the downed aircraft. Because he was delirious for most of that time, MS Montgomery didn’t play a major role in the others’ survival. “The irony of the situation,” he says, “is that I was the only person on the plane with arctic survival training and, due to my injuries, was not able to help others.”

Mr. Montgomery is one of two survivors who sustained permanent disabilities. He had frostbite on both hands and feet, and lost all the toes on his right foot, all the fingers on both hands, and the tips of two toes on his left foot. Three toes were grafted to his left hand to give him some use of the hand. “This allows me to pinch things,” he says with a smile, “and I can also put my foot in my mouth faster than anyone else I know.”

Mr. Montgomery returned to CFS Alert in June 1993 for the dedication of the cairn in memory of those who died in the crash.

Today, he doesn’t mind talking about the crash. He attributes his positive outlook on life to his upbringing. His mother was a psychiatric social worker at Royal Ottawa Hospital and, as a teenager, Mr. Montgomery volunteered with mentally and physically disabled children. “I learned very early on in my life,” he says, “that disability is as much a mental state as it is a physical one.”

Since the accident, he has only ever considered himself disabled for one 24-hour period, about a month after the rescue. “I was depressed and miserable; I treated everyone terribly,” Mr. Montgomery says. “The next day, I woke up and apologized to everyone for my behaviour. Aside from that episode, I have taken the approach that I wanted to get on with my life.”

Today, Mr. Montgomery says that his disability does not affect his day-to-day life or his work, as he can type about 25 words per minute. “I am not using my prostheses on a regular basis,” he says. He is now involved with several charities in the Ottawa region.

“The best compliment I’ve received from people is that they forget I’m disabled,” he says. “That is a wonderful compliment, both to them and to me.” CFS Alert will be celebrating CFS Alert – 50 Years of SIGINT (signals intelligence) in September 2008. If you were stationed in CFS Alert, military or civilian, visit www.alert.leitrimmess.com for more information.

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