SNOW LAKE -- There is much speculation but no answers in the Sunday morning crash of the single-engine, 14-seat plane that took the life of a 40-year-old local pilot and sent seven passengers to hospital.
Transportation Safety Board investigator Ross Peden said the plane was badly damaged as it cut through dense forest about one kilometre southwest of the end of the gravel airstrip near this northern mining community.
"It's basically intact but quite severely damaged," Peden said during a news briefing Monday afternoon from the town office. "It sustained a lot of damage as it collided with trees as it came through the forest."
Pilot Mark Gogal, 40, had barely cleared the runway when the plane went back down, landing belly down with its nose pointed slightly downward, Peden said.
The wreckage will be taken to the TSB laboratory in Ottawa, where it will be analyzed.
"It appears that the aircraft was operating normally," Peden said. "The engine was running but I can't determine much else apart from that."
Gogal was described as a veteran pilot with more than 20 years experience.
The Gogal Air Service flight was transporting workers on a charter flight from the nearby Lalor mine to Winnipeg.
Gogal Air is a family business, with father Larry and sons Mark and Brad working as pilots.
The Sunday morning flight was one of two Gogal Air flights that left Snow Lake that morning. Mark Gogal took off first, followed shortly by a plane flown by his brother Brad.
Peden said weather conditions were poor at take-off, with a low cloud ceiling and a lot of humidity. Local residents described the morning as extremely foggy just before 10 a.m. when the two planes took off.
An individual familiar with the crash said Brad Gogal tried to communicate with his brother Mark when he got his plane into the air but he couldn't reach him. There was too much fog to see, the source said, and Brad was unable to turn back but suspected immediately something was wrong.
Brad Gogal continued his flight to Winnipeg and returned to Snow Lake Monday afternoon.
The Gogal family declined to be interviewed.
RCMP Cpl. Jason Schalla said the terrain where the plane went down is thick with muskeg, rock and dense forest. He said it would have been impossible to get to the crash site without the help of a local contractor who used a bulldozer to cut a path close to the site.
The passengers sustained a variety of broken bones and other injuries, but none were life-threatening, Schalla said. Local residents rushed to the scene to offer assistance, he said, bringing clothing and blankets.
Schalla said the injured were removed from the crash site by volunteers riding ATVs pulling sleds. They were taken to the freshly cut road, where they were transferred to waiting ambulances.
The first of the injured arrived at the Snow Lake Health Centre just after noon. Once stabilized by the medical staff, all the injured were transported by ambulance to hospitals in Flin Flon, The Pas and Thompson. Schall said they are now all in stable condition.
The Northern Health Region said Monday afternoon only two patients are still in northern hospitals, while five were airlifted to Winnipeg hospitals for further assessment or surgery.
Medical staff at the town's small hospital found themselves overwhelmed by the crisis.
"It was chaos," said Kelly Wiwcharuk, the nurse manager at the Snow Lake Health Centre.
The small hospital was notified shortly after 10 a.m. about the crash and the likelihood several people were injured, giving it almost two hours to prepare for the rush of patients.
"Of course, we have an emergency plan, but I've never been involved in anything like that," said Wiwcharuk, a lifelong resident of Snow Lake.
Wiwcharuk said she had to call in four off-duty registered nurses and several aides to join the lone nurse and aide normally on duty on weekends.
"We only have five nurses in the community," Wiwcharuk said. "Often two or three of them will be out of town. I just can't imagine what we would have done had that happened."
A triage area was set up in emergency receiving to get ready for the patients, she said, extra medical supplies were put on hand and rooms were prepared.
As the victims arrived, they were assigned a nurse and aide. All but two of the victims were treated in a room, she said. Two had to be treated in the hallway.
Wiwcharuk said the victims were quickly treated. Most of their injuries consisted of broken bones and they were just stabilized for transportation to a hospital.
Wiwcharuk said the nursing staff found the situation difficult, adding they knew all the victims personally.
"In a small town, you know everyone."
Snow Lake Mayor Clarence Fisher said he was proud of the quick response provided by local residents.
"Full credit and thanks needs to be given to the many people who were involved in this difficult rescue," he said.