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TOPIC: Personal Story - it could happen to you
Personal Story - it could happen to you 12 years 5 months ago #7889
On the morning of February 28, 2005, Dave Stevens was on his way to his office when his cell phone rang. They needed him to scale a few sticks today, so he was to make his way to the floatplane spit instead. He told his wife there was a change of plans and gave her a second kiss goodbye. She asked if he had his floater coat, which she had bought him for Christmas in 1997, and told him to stay safe, as was their tradition.
At approximately 10:10 PST on February 28, 2005, pilot Arnie Feast boarded his passengers Dave Stevens, Fabian Bedard and brothers Doug and Trevor Decock onto the DeHavilland float-equipped Beaver mark C-GAQW, and took off from Campbell River, British Columbia destined for two different logging camps. It must have been a neat reunion, since Dave had known the Decock family for years from his time living on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and had also flown with Arnie many times.
That evening, the immediate family members of Arnie, Fabian, Dave and the Decock boys were notified by the various employers that the floatplane which had been taking the men to work had not arrived at its’ destinations. It was a stormy night, but the families all believed they must have just caught some weather and were sitting it out in a cove somewhere. All five were experienced bushmen, survivors, the kinds of guys that would have built a shelter, made a fire, and caught a few fish for dinner. The search and rescue helicopters could be heard well into the night. The next day the storm continued, but a huge search was mounted and again carried on through until late in the night. Still, there was no word. The afternoon of March 2nd, Dave’s wife received a call. She was alone in the house with her 2 month old baby when she was told that her husbands’ body had been found barely twenty miles from home. She collapsed in breathless sobs until his family arrived and collected her off the floor.
The autopsy, performed on March 7th, just hours before his funeral, indicated that he was uninjured, but had drowned despite the Mustang Survival jacket he always wore. His wife’s first reaction was that he had been trapped inside the fuselage as so many crash victims are when floatplanes become inverted in the water. But the coroner indicated this was not the case, as hypothermia had been an extenuating factor. His widow then believed in her heart he had jumped at the last minute, that he was the only one that ever had a chance. His recent underwater egress training and hundreds, even thousands of hours flying the coast had given him the wherewithal to make it out. She asked the RCMP Victims Services to tell the other families that she would like to speak to them. When none called, she felt they must resent her for having found some closure. She tried to hold it together while caring for her baby and two other children. Her knowledge that he had tried his best to come home was all that kept her going.
By the end of the third day, the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre had turned over the search to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as a missing persons case. Campbell River Search and Rescue, Quadra Island Volunteer Fire Department, the Quadra Island RCMP Detachment as well as the Decock family, Doug’s wife Allison and her family, Fabian’s fiancé Darla and her family, friends of the missing persons, and community members continued walking the beaches and scoping the shoreline. The Canadian Forces sent the HMCS Whitehorse to search the area with its SONAR equipment for signs of the plane, and then sent it back to search an expanded area. By April, the official search had been shut down.
But the families did not give up. Joined by Dave’s widow Kirsten and Arnie’s sister Sally, who until this time was convinced the others must think her brother responsible, the families met to discuss how to continue. Now spearheaded by Doug and Trevor’s brother Kevin Decock, who had already spent many nights sleeping in his truck to stay on the island searching, and with the help of tireless volunteers Glenn Dennis, Lilianne Langevin and Todd Scharf, who gave up months of their lives, the private search which has been described as “monumental and unprecedented” began. Calls went out to the public for help. Thousands of dollars from countless individuals and business entities, ferry crossings, parts, food, sonar equipment, services, time … anything the community thought might help, they donated. Beaches were walked, numerous witnesses who had either heard the plane in the air or actually hitting the water were interviewed over and over by Kevin, and bottles were dropped in an effort to understand the tides. Glenn’s dive boat, the Acapulco, was customized with a mount for a donated winch. Lead weights were made for the sonar equipment and the search party was able to chart the deep waters.
In late June a sonar hit was made. It looked promising. On July 14th, Mike Mortensen of International Underwater Surveyors positively identified the aircraft using the camera mounted on his remote operated vehicle to photograph the call sign over 800 feet below the surface. Various governmental agencies, including the Coroner’s Service, indicated their willingness to help with the costs of recovering of the plane and the families arranged the services of a barge and a deep water diver to hook the aircraft.
On July 26th, family members, friends and dedicated volunteers climbed aboard Glenn’s boat and watched anxiously as Nuytco sent their diver down in his mini-sub. Kevin and Alison’s father Paul Martin joined the crew aboard the Inlet Raider to oversee the lift. What should have been a relatively simple operation, ended up taking three days, as those waiting aboard the Acapulco used the time to join together in tears and laughter. Dave’s baby Michael helped to remind everyone of the joys of life, gave everyone hope, and a unique bond was formed. At the end of the second day, Sally had to leave for Montreal where she and Arnie had grown up, in order to attend his memorial service. The heart-wrenching pull she felt at having to leave while Arnie still lay at the bottom of the ocean was nearly more than she could bear. Throughout the third day, as the Acapulco drifted in and out of cell range, she remained in contact until everyone’s batteries ran out, and then waited frantically for someone to call. As the plane neared the surface family members nearly burst with expectation. Five months to the day had gone by and finally, the rest of the boys were coming home.
But it was not to be. The boys were gone. The clock had stopped at 10:16. The seatbelts were all unbuckled – somehow, it seemed, they had all gotten out alive. The family members of those still missing went into an emotional tailspin. Kirsten suddenly came out of shock. She realized that her husband Dave had not been the only one to have a chance. They all had a chance. She cringed at how Dave must have suffered watching his friends die so close to home and safety, at how he must have floated out there alone for hours, remembering and waiting for his own rescue, so sure it would come. How could it not? They were so close to Quadra. People must have seen and heard the plane crash; must have heard the calls for help. But no one came.
In the nearly ten years Dave and Kirsten had been together, she could not remember a time when a floatplane or helicopter involved in transporting loggers had crashed, and Dave had not known someone on board. It had been devastating for him at times to learn about the deaths of close friends while watching the evening news. She knew that if Dave had survived he would have figured out what was going on in the system that there could be such carnage. And he would have changed it. Now, she felt, it was her job.
In the morning light of the 29th of July, the day Fabian and Darla were to be married, officials including the RCMP, Transportation Safety Board and the coroner viewed the wreckage again and began their investigations of the crash. Over the course of the next few days, family members visited the wreckage with various members of the aviation community. Although the engine itself had remained in the silt, oil all over the windscreen and up one side of the fuselage, as well as what appeared to be smoke scarring made it clear that the sounds heard by witnesses had been an engine problem precipitating a crash-landing.
Over the course of the next few months, as everyone anxiously awaited the official reports into the crash, the family members and friends reviewed what they had learned during the search for the aircraft, and began to question what had really happened that fateful day. They faced the added stress of discovering that the majority of the recovery costs had come back to them, largely because the there were no bodies on board and so it was deemed a for-profit salvage operation.
They knew that Arnie, Fabian, Doug and Trevor all got out despite the damage to the plane. This indicated to them that pilot must have done a great job of the emergency landing under conditions which included glassy water, fog, smoke, and oil on the windshield. The fact that no lifejackets were taken, and the containment of the debris field so deep at the bottom of the ocean, told them that the plane sank very fast.
So they knew they were going down, they prepared, they survived, and they got out. But no one came to get them. No mayday was sent out. The emergency locator beacon did not activate. Officials were not notified of a missing plane until over four hours after the crash. How could this happen?
During the summer months, Alison, Darla, Sally and Kirsten visited Village Bay where Dave’s body had been found. They placed a plaque, each placing a single nail. Kirsten read them the words she had recently written for the scattering of Dave’s ashes in the hope that she could help provide strength for the other women.
On September 17th, having followed their story, local rock band “High Strung” staged a benefit dance to help the families recover some of the huge costs they had borne to search and recover the aircraft. Several businesses provided donations, and the bar was hosted by the Campbell River Lions Club, CR Men’s Oldtimers’ Hockey Club and the CR Rotary Club. Hundreds of local residents turned out to show their support, and thousands of dollars were raised.
In October, the families learned that the Transportation Safety Board had submitted a letter to the coroner regarding their conclusions as to the cause of the crash. The families requested a copy, certain the letter would answer at least some of their questions.
They were gravely disappointed. Not only did the Transportation Safety Board not even mention the clear indications or oil spray and engine failure, but the letter left the distinct impression that the cause of the crash was weather and pilot error. No wonder they hadn’t taken anything for testing. They were turning a blind eye. This was to be the end of their investigation. It seemed to the families that their men weren’t important enough for the officials to put in the necessary effort to find out what had really gone wrong that day. They were angry.
On December 2nd, 2005 family members and two very respected and knowledgeable community aviators were to meet with the Coroner, the Transportation Safety Board Regional Manager and his two investigators. Transport Canada was asked to come by the TSB RM, but declined the invitation. The day before the meeting, a statement was received from a witness who heard calls for help as much as three hours after the crash. No one had any doubt that it was real, and that it may have been Dave’s last attempt before succumbing to the frigid waters. Now his widow began to believe he may actually have made it to the beach, but been washed away with the tide.
During the course of the meeting officials were presented with this and all other information the families had gathered. The families questioned TSB members about various issues which TSB had addressed in previous accident investigations, but which the authorities that be (mainly Transport Canada) had failed to rectify. They agreed on a few things and agreed that they disagreed on others. Eventually the group moved to the large storage facility where the families continued to maintain the wreckage. Although the families insisted that the engine needed to be raised to find out what had caused the engine malfunction, the TSB could not be convinced that oil and water don’t mix, and the investigators refused to see that they may have overlooked something. In the end, they agreed to do a few more tests.
While waiting for the tests to be completed, and at the Coroner’s request, the families began to write their own report into their findings. It was an exhaustive process and as the one year anniversary of the crash approached, the family members found a need to be together and away. They rented a house on Quadra Island for a few days, allowing nine of the ten children time to talk and play together. They marked the anniversary itself with a private ceremony, once again at Village Bay. There is a beautiful bench that has been made and will eventually be placed at Rebecca Spit on Quadra Island, overlooking the area where the plane went down. But as long as the boys and the engine are still down there, it will be a difficult place for the families to be at peace.
The TSB tests were completed, with no significant findings. Of course, they did not test for oil and smoke on the windshield, with their continued belief that the oil had settled after the aircraft’s crash, while deep on the ocean’s floor.
On March 20th, 2006 the families officially released their report and its’ many supporting documents which include an expert statement suggesting a theory, and the letter to the coroner mentioned above. The families’ report was sent to the Coroner, the RCMP, the TSB, the Director General of Civil Aviation, the Forest Safety Council, the newly appointed Forestry Coroner, numerous members of the press, the newly elected member of parliament (who never responded), legal counsel, and everybody else under the sun. Kirsten Stevens built a website, publicising the report further, which she briefly maintained until she received a letter from the airline owner’s lawyer, at which time she removed her report from public view with deep regret.
The following month, another expert came to view the wreckage. His conclusions were similar to the original expert, and he put us on the trail of a long-standing existing problem with the R-985 engines. This opened up a whole new aspect of investigation.
Throughout the course of the last year, Sally, Darla and the Decock families had to contend with the legalities of their men being missing. Imagine having to deal with being unable to reinsure your vehicle because it remains in your “missing” husband’s name. Without a death certificate, the vehicle remains his and cannot be signed over. You can’t get a death certificate when someone is missing, even if there is 100% certainty that they are no longer alive. Not without jumping through enough hoops to lose twenty pounds.
In May, the families finally forced some help for engine recovery from the TSB when $10,000 was promised to aid in the latest recovery effort. As they approached summer, hopes were high that with the help of IUS, the recovery could be managed. Once again they were optimistic. At about the same time, Kirsten took the new RCMP constable, the airline’s operations manager and the owner of the approved maintenance organization to see the wreckage at its’ new storage container. Kirsten says she tried hard to keep her composure, although she did manage to ask a few pointed questions.
Throughout the fair-weather months, the families and the same group of tireless volunteers continued their efforts to raise the engine. Whenever IUS had a few days in between contracts, they came through the Sutil Channel and attempted a dive. The children had a wonderful time, deciding to call the group “the connect-four families”. More attempts than they care to remember were made, with everything from equipment to jellyfish hampering their efforts. IUS had agreed to do the work on a “success only basis”, such that they volunteered their time and equipment every one of those countless days. By the time the fall weather changes came around, the group knew they may not be able to get it done in time. The families appealed to an ex-member of parliament who had been very helpful during the search and initial recovery phase. Arrangements were made for a much larger and more expensive ROV to be contracted while already deployed on a Coast Guard Vessel. This would save the high costs of deployment and vessel, keeping things within a manageable range above the $10,000 on offer from the TSB. A range of days in November was the target, and then their hopes were dashed again when it was discovered that the necessary liability papers were not in place.
In frustration, Kirsten sent an email to Transport Canada Maintenance and Manufacturing demanding that the department respond to the families’ contention that the floats were not airworthy at the time of their last flight.
Meanwhile, although the families had learned that TSB was not planning to do an investigation for cause” they were able to convince the Regional Manager that perhaps another investigator should examine the existing wreckage. On November 15th, 2006 a senior investigator from a different region came to the site. This time many samples were taken and sent for testing. He made it clear to the family members in attendance that it was absolutely necessary for the engine to be recovered. The next morning, he discussed the need with the coroner who joined them at the site later that day. Hoping that amongst the officials a solution could be found, and knowing that those missing persons must be nearby, the families also asked the RCMP to attend. A new report will be issued when the examination facility is finished it’s tests.
A few days later Kirsten received a call from Transport Canada saying they’d like to arrange for a couple of safety inspectors to come and examine the floats. Elated and feeling as though they had finally been heard, Kirsten sent off two more emails. The first email was sent to the TSB and DGCA demanding an investigation for cause, and a second to Transport Canada Business and Commercial Aviation (and the DGCA) regarding our concerns about the lack of dispatch radio for the aircraft. These complaints were submitted into the Civil Aviation Issues Reporting System. No response has yet been received.
On December 7th, 2006, two Transport Canada Civil Aviation Safety Inspectors (Aircraft Maintenance and Manufacturing) came to examine the floats from the wreckage. Family members and our expert from North Sound Aviation in Washington also attended the examination. What we discovered confirmed our suspicions and we await Transport Canada’s official response to see if they will concur.
As the two year anniversary of the crash approaches, the families’ frustration with the lack of official investigation and repercussion grows exponentially. They have discovered that despite everything they have learned and presented, the Transportation Safety Board system was still showing this as a Class 5 investigation on January 9th, 2007. (For an explanation of this investigation classification system, see here.) They have joined forces with other families who have lost loved ones in air accidents, and found similar frustration and dissatisfaction with both the official search and/or the investigation into the accident. The families’ are currently preparing a second report into their findings over the previous year, which will be released in the near future and posted to this website. Findings that will be included in this report include lack of Transport Canada Pacific Region oversight of small air taxi operations, such as those used almost exclusively by the forest industry; slow Transport Canada response to correcting known problems with aging aircraft (such as the DHC-2), their replacement parts and overall life; the difficulties of charging a business or corporation under Criminal Code Bill C-45; and perhaps most importantly, the overall environment created by the Worker's Compensation Act's protection of the employer.
As they wait for answers, Darla still keeps her wedding dress hanging on the back of her bedroom door, praying for her beloved Fabian to come home.
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