Fort Smith, N.W.T. –
When ascertaining the value of a diamond, gemologists speak about carats, clarity and cut. But little attention is given to the effort it takes to unearth the precious stones.
The precarious nature of the work only overshadows the brilliance of the gem when tragedy strikes, as it did last week for Rio Tinto. Four of its employees died in a plane crash last Tuesday, en route to work at its Diavik diamond mine in Canada’s Far North.
The Diavik mine is located about 200 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle on Lac De Gras, a lake that is frozen for much of the year.
For the 1,200 employees who work at the mine, flying is the only way to get there.
Emergency Town Hall
On the morning of Jan. 23, a British Aerospace Jetstream Plane crashed into the woods near the Fort Smith, N.W.T. The charter flight was carrying five Rio Tinto workers and two flight crewmembers. Only one worker survived.
Rio Tinto’s CEO Jakob Stausholm flew in from Australia to hold an emergency town hall meeting with Diavik’s workers two days after the crash.
“I have never experienced such emotions in a room,” said Stausholm in a video interview with CTV News. In his five-and-a-half years with Rio Tinto, Stausholm said company did not have a single fatality until the accident.
Safety, he said, was an “existential” issue for the company.
According to Rio Tinto’s 2022 workforce data, Diavik employees are picked up from eight different locations from across the territories and Alberta. There are seven pick up locations in the North, but 60 per cent of its workers are picked up from Edmonton.
During the interview with a small group of reporters, Stausholm’s voice cracked. At one point, the CEO wiped tears from his eyes as he described the feeling shock that surrounded the mine.
“We have lost some of our friends and colleagues. And we’re totally dependent on air transport. So it’s critical to make sure we can assure that there is safety in everything we do in the mine and in the transport to and from the mine…not just for our employees, but it’s their families that also have concerns.”
TSB investigation could take 15 months
Stausholm’s attempts to reassure was limited by unknowns. The cause of the crash has yet to be determined. The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has deployed a team of four investigators to Fort Smith to interview witnesses and collect evidence. But it could take up to 15 months for the TSB to complete their investigation.
Factors such as weather, mechanical failure and pilot error will be analyzed. Aviation expert Phyl Durdley says questions will be answered by the recovery of the plane’s flight data recorder.
“Did it have engine failure? What was the icing conditions? Did they get all the ice off before takeoff? Once we get information from the black box that will give us some definite answers,” Dursley said.
On the day Stausholm met with employees, the TSB released the first images of the accident scene. The British Aerospace Jetstream aircraft had caught on fire upon impact, and its charred fuselage was broken in pieces strewn in the woods.
Six fatalities, one survivor
One survivor, Kurt MacDonald, was rescued and taken to the Fort Smith hospital. He works as an electrician at the mine and is the father of a toddler. CTV News has also spoken with the family members of three other Diavik workers who died in the crash. Among the victims, Diane Balsillie; Joel Tetso, a heavy duty mechanic and Howie Benwell, a truck hauler.
Two crewmembers of Northwestern Air Lease who operated the charter flight also died. Bruce Harrold, the owner of the leasing company, did not respond to inquiries from CTV News. However, a day after the accident, Northwestern Air posted a plea on social media to “give everyone time to grieve the loss of our treasured coworkers, friends, family and community members.”
“During this difficult period let us be there for each other so we can get through this together,” the company said on Facebook.
Profound impact on a close community
That unity was evident in a candlelight vigil held in Fort Smith on last Wednesday night. Hundreds of people gathered at St. Joseph’s Cathedral to find comfort in collective grief.
Among those gathered were the families and friends of the victims, but also the first responders who rushed to the scene to rescue them. Around 2,200 people live in Fort Smith, and Mayor Fred Daniels says this tragedy has affected everyone in the community because they all know each other. He’s urging residents to reach out for support.
Additional trauma counsellors have been dispatched to Fort Smith to deal with a surge of people seeking mental health help.
The mayor says he was close to some of the victims. At the vigil, Daniels was supposed to make opening remarks, but too emotional, he asked the deputy mayor to speak in his place.
He says Fort Smith is getting help from other towns and Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories, while the premier is expected to visit on Sunday.
“Hopefully we could move forward and we’ll find somehow some way,” Daniels said. The weight of the tragedy was obvious in Daniel’s face during his zoom interview with CTV News.
“Being a politician you’re used to talking and everything comes to you, but I feel so lost and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do,” Daniels said as he broke down. His shoulders shook as he sobbed into his hands.
The community will face more grief in the upcoming days. Families are waiting for the coroner release the bodies of their loved ones to allow funerals to be held.