Renowned University of Manitoba Arctic researcher David Barber believes he, instead of colleague Klaus Hochheim, could -- and maybe even should -- have died in a helicopter crash in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean Monday night.
He was the scientist in charge, and when he was away from the Arctic, others had to take the risks for him, a saddened Barber said.
As project director, Barber often took that routine helicopter flight to check ice conditions ahead of the research vessel Amundsen.
But when Barber rotated off the ship last week, that put colleague and longtime friend Hochheim on the helicopter, in harm's way above the unforgiving Arctic waters.
"It should have been me on that helicopter, not him," an emotional Barber said in an interview Wednesday.
"I left the ship on Thursday. I was doing the same work" last week as Hochheim was performing Monday, when Hochheim, Canadian Coast Guard pilot Daniel Dubé, and Amundsen commander Marc Thibault died.
Two days after the crash, there were still few answers from federal agencies Wednesday about what happened. The men's bodies were recovered and taken aboard the Amundsen, which reached Resolute early Wednesday. Autopsies are to be performed, and a recovery operation to gather wreckage is being organized.
"It was a very routine operation," said Barber, Canada Research Chair in Arctic Systems Science at the U of M. Flying out from the Amundsen, they would have been low over the surface, measuring through lowered sensors the depth of the ice, he said.
"They were on their way back," 10, maybe 15 minutes out, when their automatic signal stopped, sending the Amundsen at full speed to find them, Barber said.
"There was no emergency call, so something must have happened very quickly," he said.
Barber said he met Wednesday morning with the three lead researchers at the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the U of M, all of whom had talked to their 10 university staff and graduate students among the 40 researchers aboard the Amundsen.
"We're quite concerned about their mental state right now," said Barber, saying clinicians and grief counsellors were flying up to Resolute.
University staff are discussing whether to bring the group home immediately and whether and when to continue the current research. The Amundsen needs a new helicopter and it can't sail until it has a new captain, Barber said.
Some people say the Arctic is too dangerous for people, that research should be done through satellites and other technology. Barber rejects that view and said Hochheim shared that opinion.
"We represent a group of scientists, we're boots-on-the-ground people, by definition, that's in harm's way," he
said. "They're (tragedies) traumatic when they happen, but they should not deter us.
"We don't do it for a paycheque; we do it because it makes a difference" to everyone on the planet to know what climate change is doing to the Arctic sea ice, he said.
Barber and Hochheim go back 30 years, to when Barber hired the Winnipeg-born Hochheim to work in a small environmental consulting firm. Later, Hochheim joined Barber in academia.
"He was very much a specialist in how climate is coupled with sea ice. He was especially a specialist on Hudson Bay."
Barber said Hocheim's work is required reading for his environment students at the U of M: "It was seminal on how Hudson Bay works."
The U of M said flags will be lowered through the end of the week, and the university is discussing how best to memorialize Hochheim. He left a wife and three children.