They were on a routine patrol, checking ice conditions as part of research being conducted aboard the icebreaker Amundsen.
The weather in the McClure Strait of the western Arctic was clear and there was plenty of daylight. And then the ship lost contact with the Canadian Coast Guard helicopter Monday around 8 p.m. local time.
When the Amundsen reached the helicopter's last known position, the crew discovered the depth of the tragedy that had played out in the waters of the frigid Arctic Ocean.
"They crashed over water," coast guard assistant commissioner Mario Pelletier told reporters Tuesday. "The ship found three persons in the water -- they were brought aboard. We cannot say how and when they died. They were in the water, they were not in the wreck."
The dead were identified as University of Manitoba Arctic research scientist Klaus Hochheim, Marc Thibault, commanding officer of the ship, and pilot Daniel Dub©. There was no one else aboard the helicopter.
The 55-year-old Hochheim was a climatologist and research associate with the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba, which announced a $15-million Arctic research centre last March using the Amundsen and sophisticated campus labs to study the effects of climate change.
The men's bodies were recovered and are on the Amundsen, which is expected to reach Resolute Bay, NU., sometime today. Grief counsellors will meet with the 40 researchers on board from a wide variety of universities who belong to the ArcticNet research group, among them a large contingent of U of M graduate students, and with 40 crew members.
The coast guard was not sure Tuesday how much wreckage had been recovered and how much had sunk 420 metres to the bottom of the ocean. Pelletier said anyone flying in the Arctic must wear emergency survival suits.
"We are deeply affected by this tragedy," he said.
The RCMP will take over the investigation of how and when they died. The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his condolences to the victims' families. "It is a grim reminder of the very real dangers faced on a regular basis by those brave individuals who conduct research and patrol our Arctic -- one of the harshest and most challenging climates in the world -- to better understand and protect Canada's North," Harper said in a statement.
The Amundsen helped bring U of M researchers to worldwide prominence in Arctic climate-change research. At least 100 scientists and graduate students are involved in intensive research on-board and at the U of M campus.
The university takes high school students to the Amundsen each summer.
Last March, the U of M opened the $15-million Nellie Cournoyea Arctic Research Facility under the direction of Canada Research Chair Prof. David Barber.
U of M president David Barnard said at the time the university's leadership role in climate-change research in the Arctic is unique in the world.
Barber was out of the country Tuesday, but Barnard issued a prepared statement: "I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Klaus Hochheim. He was one of our most remarkable graduates, an ardent researcher dedicated to his work in understanding the nature of climate change and its effects on sea ice. His loss will have a lasting effect on his colleagues at the Centre for Earth Observation Science and many others here at the University of Manitoba. On behalf of the university community, I extend sincere condolences to his family," said Barnard.
"Right now, it's disbelief. We need to digest this and think about how to honour him," said Tim Papakyriakou, director of the Centre for Earth Observation Science.
"He'd just gotten on the ship -- we swap out crews every six weeks," Papakyriakou said.
While Hochheim taught courses in the past, "His role here was largely research. Klaus's work is ice, he's an expert."
Papakyriakou said many researchers use remote satellite imaging to measure climate-change effects on ice, but Hochheim was out on the ice using personal observation.
Barber got off the Amundsen when Hochheim got on, Papakyriakou said. "There are many U of M students on-board right now. We have a big team up there."
Papakyriakou said it will be up to the coast guard to decide when the Amundsen can sail again. He said it is premature to speculate whether the current research crew will stay and continue its work.
Hochheim is survived by his wife, Martha, and three children, Carl, Laura and Kristen.
The university said Hochheim had been with the U of M for 12 years after receiving both his master's and PhD there. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg.