Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k
$11,845

People in a tight-knit Northwest Territories town were in mourning Wednesday as investigators began to probe a plane crash that killed six people — two crew members and four passengers headed for work at a diamond mine.

A lone survivor was taken to hospital.

“It’s very, very sad. It's sombre here,” Kevin Antoniak, a longtime Fort Smith resident, said over the phone. The community of 2,500 lies along the territorial boundary with Alberta at the end of a highway.

"You know the people who were on the plane but also the people that were flying the plane and the people who own the company. My next-door neighbour is the chief mechanic, so you can imagine what he’s going through. It’s just devastating.”

The charter plane, a British Aerospace Jetstream 3212 operated by Northwestern Air Lease, was headed Tuesday morning to the Diavik Diamond Mine, some 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

"Shortly after takeoff on Runway 30, the aircraft collided with terrain. There was a post-impact fire and the aircraft was destroyed," the Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating, wrote in an initial report.

The plane went down near the banks of the Slave River, in an area thick with trees, about one kilometre west of the airport. Rescuers parachuted to the scene. It was snowing at the time.

Rio Tinto, the mine's owner, said the four passengers killed and the survivor were company workers.

"We are feeling numb with the devastating news that we have lost dear friends and colleagues," Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said in a press release.

'Devastating': Six dead in N.W.T. plane crash, lone survivor in hospital. #NWT #PlaneCrash #RioTinto #MineWorkers

The territory's coroner service said the injured passenger was taken to the Fort Smith Health Centre then airlifted to the hospital in Yellowknife.

When news of the crash spread throughout Fort Smith, Rev. Aaron Solberg went to the health centre to lend his support to those affected, including first responders.

“A sort of eerie silence seemed to take over the whole town,” he said in an interview.

That silence continued into Tuesday evening, as officials confirmed there had been fatalities.

Solberg hosted the usual 5:30 p.m. service at St. John’s Anglican Church, where he said people came in person and dozens tuned in online, including many who don’t normally attend.

Solberg, who has been in the community for about a year, said no one is unaffected.

Fort Smith town council offered help for those who are grieving, and invited them to drop by the local recreation centre for "snacks, drinks and friendly faces."

"We understand that you may not wish to be alone right now (and) that you may want to talk about it with others that are experiencing the same feelings of grief and trauma," the council said in a statement.

A candlelight vigil was planned for Wednesday evening. Messages of condolences poured in from other communities.

"As a community, we mourn with you for the lives of those lost and we offer our support during this incredibly difficult time," Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty posted on social media.

Fort Smith’s three churches have come together to put together the vigil.

“We're all there looking to offer people that encouragement, to offer that stability,” said Solberg. “Coming together like this is really illustrating that when one of us hurts, we all hurt, and we must bear each other's burdens.”

Another Northwestern Air Lease plane was badly damaged last April while landing at the Fort Smith airport.

A two-member crew on board a British Aerospace Jetstream 31 was conducting training and, during the touchdown, the left main landing gear collapsed, causing the plane to leave the runway, the Transportation Safety Board said in an investigation last year.

There were no injuries.

Laval St. Germain, a Calgary-based airline captain for Canadian North who used to fly planes in and out of the Fort Smith airport, said he has fond memories of working in the N.W.T.

"It's a challenging area of operations, for sure, because of things like the weather, the remoteness, lack of services, that type of thing," he said.

Over the past decade, the number of plane accidents and fatal incidents in Canada has trended downward.

In 2022, there were 24 fatal accidents involving Canadian-registered aircraft in Canadian airspace, compared to 42 in 2012, said the safety board. The number of air travellers killed decreased to 34 from 63 within the same period.

By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, with files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg, Colette Derworiz in Calgary, Jeremy Simes in Regina and Chris Reynolds in Montreal

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 24, 2024.

Keep reading