The deadly crash was one of two fatal plane crashes that occurred in northwestern Ontario Thursday night.
A Wasaya Airways 11-seat Cessna Grand Caravan en route from Pickle Lake to Summer Beaver crashed at 8:30 p.m., a few kilometres west of the Summer Beaver airstrip 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. All seven passengers on the plane were residents of the Summer Beaver reserve, which has been devastated by the loss of so many community members, including a seven-year-old boy.
The identities of the eight people, including the pilot, were being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Of the reserve's band council, only the chief and one councillor remain.
"It's a shock," Chief Roger Oskineegish said. "Just about everyone is related to one of them, so it's very hard for us," Oskineegish said. "These are people that I worked with every day. My grandfather once told me to expect the unexpected. But this is very hard to bear."
About 500 friends and relatives of the victims were expected to converge on the Summer Beaver reserve to offer support, including many from Thunder Bay and a handful from Winnipeg.
"We're getting lots of support from other first nations," Oskineegish said. "Everyone is chipping in. We have a crisis team in place."
Rescue personnel from the 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Winnipeg were called in to search for the downed plane at 10:15 p.m. by Wasaya Airways staff who realized the plane was late. Rescuers were able to locate the remote crash site around 2 a.m. yesterday after spotting a fire in the bush about five kilometres from the airport at Summer Beaver. The aircraft flew over the blaze and picked up a faint signal from the plane's emergency locator transmitter. Two rescuers parachuted into the site and found the incinerated plane. There were no survivors.
In a bizarre coincidence, a second small plane -- a private Cessna 172 registered to a B.C. owner -- crashed 100 kilometres west of Thunder Bay Thursday night after taking off at 5 p.m. from St. Andrew's on its way to Thunder Bay. When the small plane didn't arrive at Thunder Bay, an emergency search was initiated at 9:45 p.m.
The bodies of two people aboard that plane -- a man and a woman travelling east from B.C. -- were found early yesterday morning in a remote area after a weak signal was picked up from their emergency locator transmitter. No distress calls were received from the pilot before the four-seater plane went down.
Volunteer fire department crews had to break a trail through 300 metres of bush to get to the small aircraft, said Kevin Holland, fire captain and reeve of Conmee Township.
The plane hit a couple of trees, then came to rest nose down, Holland said. Volunteers from Conmee and the neighbouring Shebandowan fire departments used extrication tools to recover the bodies, which were still strapped in their seats.
Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators are on their way to both crash sites, but their progress is being hampered by the extreme remoteness of the locations.
John Cottreau of the TSB said it will likely be some time today before investigators are able to begin to piece together the clues that will allow them to determine what caused both crashes. Investigators will be flown into both sites, which are inaccessible by road.
Cottreau said it is too early to speculate on what caused the crashes, but he did say investigators will consider weather conditions in the area at the time of the Wasaya flight as a possible factor behind the accident.
According to Environment Canada meteorologist Mike McDonald, a band of rain and thick clouds was moving east from Manitoba into Northwestern Ontario Thursday night at the same time as the Wasaya flight was in the air.
During the evening hours, the cloud cover became very thick and dropped low in the sky. At times, the cloud ceiling hovered between 500 and 900 feet and remained thick to 25,000 feet.
McDonald said the weather system was accompanied by rain, some lightning and a few thundershowers.
Eric Kudaka, spokesman for Wasaya Airways, said the pilot of the doomed plane activated the runway lights at Summer Beaver from inside the cockpit in preparation for landing at the community-owned and operated strip just before the crash.
There was no indication of mechanical problems and the pilot did not radio in any kind of emergency.
"When they didn't land, we tried to contact them via radio and couldn't,'' said Kudaka. "That's when we knew something was wrong."
Kudaka said all pilots are required to check on weather conditions in their flight path as part of their pre-flight routine. But the decision whether or not to fly is the pilot's. He could not say whether the pilot had done such a check before this flight.
Wasaya vice-president of operations, Paul Disley, said the pilot had been with the company for "several years" and was considered "a seasoned pilot."
At a press conference yesterday, Disley said the Cessna Caravan 208B was purchased in 1992 and has been in the fleet "quite some time."
"There were absolutely no indications of any mechanical problems with this aircraft that we're aware of," he said.
Wasaya Airways, which was founded in 1989, mainly provided freight service. Two months ago, it entered the passenger business when it took over a number of Northern Ontario routes from Bearskin Airlines.
The company is a venture partnership involving eight northern communities, including Summer Beaver.
Disley said Thursday's crash was the company's first serious accident. "Unfortunately in this business, as in many others, accidents do happen," said Disley. "That's what this is: an accident."
Federal Transport Minister David Collenette said the government will be assisting the Canadian Transportation Safety Board in investigating the Summer Beaver crash.
email@example.com-- With files from Carol Sanders and the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal
Recent Plane Crashes in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario
January 29, 2003 -- Eight people walked away from the crash of a Beech-99 aircraft on a frozen lake near Pikanjikum in northwestern Ontario.
August 24, 2002 -- An American fisherman died and three other Americans and a Canadian pilot were injured when their DeHavilland Beaver float plane flipped and sank while landing on a remote northwestern Ontario lake located 200 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
June 11, 2002 -- Six American tourists and a Keystone Air Services pilot were injured when their twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain ran out of fuel on its second approach to Winnipeg International Airport and crashed at the corner of McPhillips Street and Logan Avenue. The plane sheared off a light standard, sliced through the box of a delivery truck and struck two other vehicles before it skidded down the street on its left side. Everyone on the plane survived the initial crash -- though they suffered a variety of injuries -- and nobody on the ground was killed. However, three months later, 79-year-old passenger Chester Jones died of his injuries.
Sept. 27, 2001 -- A Perimeter Airlines twin-engine plane exploded in a huge fireball, killing two people after crash-landing in a field on the northwest edge of Winnipeg. Kyle Calver, 24, of Grandview, and his instructor, John Okemo, a 42-year-old Kenyan living in Winnipeg, were killed.
Nov. 6, 2000 -- A Keystone 10-seater Piper Chieftain plane was forced to land in Assiniboine Forest. All eight people aboard, including the pilot, escaped the crash with minor injuries.
Jan. 14, 2000 -- A red and white Piper Cherokee crashed just south of St. Andrews airport. The two occupants, a 27-year-old instructor at Winnipeg Aviation flying school and a 24-year-old student, walked away with minor injuries.
July 11, 1999 -- A pilot and three Girl Guide leaders were killed shortly after taking off from St. Andrews airport. The three leaders, two from Winnipeg and one from Assiniboia, Sask., were attending an international Girl Guide Jamboree at St. Malo Provincial Park south of Winnipeg. Shortly after takeoff, the plane, a Mooney M20F, made an abrupt left roll and went into a spin before crashing about 23 metres from a house.
June 1, 1999 -- Two people died when their ultralight plane crashed into trees on Keg Lake about 200 kilometres north of Dryden, Ont.
Feb. 20, 1998 -- A flying instructor and his student were killed when their single-engine DA20 Katana training aircraft crashed onto frozen Lake Manitoba. The plane was from a pilot training centre in Gimli. Glen Baird, a 33-year-old flight instructor, appeared to have lost control of the twin-seater aircraft in cloud and near white-out conditions.
Dec. 9, 1997 -- Four people, including the pilot, died when a Sowind airplane crashed outside the Little Grand Rapids airport. Thirteen others, including the co-pilot, survived the crash after the plane plunged into dense bush, ice and snow.
Nov. 3, 1996 -- Two Deloraine residents were killed when their vintage single-engine plane crashed about 20 kilometres east of Crystal City.
Sept. 16, 1996 -- A 67-year-old amateur pilot who had spent years building his dream aircraft died when the single-engine plane crashed into a Winnipeg lagoon.
Sept. 1995 -- Six people were killed when a single-engine plane crashed into a Northwestern Ontario lake. The eight-passenger float plane, owned by Kenora-based Walsten Air Services, was at an altitude of about 23 metres when its right wing dipped sharply and it plunged nose-first into the water. The dead included five Wisconsin businessmen.
May 1, 1995 -- Eight people died when two commuter planes collided in mid-air about 20 kilometres west of Sioux Lookout. A Piper Navajo operated by Air Sandy and a Bearskin Airlines Fairchild Metro 5 turboprop rammed into each other head on because one of the pilots was unaware of the other's landing approach.