The Transportation Safety Board has deployed four investigators to analyze the burnt wreckage of a British Aerospace Jetstream plane transporting workers to a diamond mine in the Northwest Territories.
In a preliminary report, the TSB has called the fatal plane crash that killed six people in Fort Smith on Tuesday, “an accident.” Its investigators will interview witnesses, collect evidence and take photos and videos of the site to determine what factors lead to the crash.
Shortly after take-off, the aircraft collided with terrain and caught fire. The lone survivor, a young man who works for the Diavik diamond mine was admitted to a Fort Smith, N.W.T. hospital with serious burns.
Four other Diavik mine employees and two crew members with Northwestern Air Lease have died. CTV News has confirmed the identities of three crash victims.
The “love of our lives” is gone
Life distorted into death within minutes. Within that same time frame, Beverly Chepelsky, wife and mother, became a widow.
On Tuesday morning, she dropped off her husband Joel Tetso at the airport. He was a heavy duty mechanic for Diavik. Every two weeks, Tetso would get on a flight to go to work helping excavate diamonds in a frozen subterranean lake on the outer edge of the Arctic Circle. The long shifts away from home would be balanced out by two following weeks off for Tetso to dote on his family.
“He was the love of our lives,” says Chepelsky in an interview with CTV National News. The couple had been together for two decades. “We share three beautiful children from ages nine to 15. He was an amazing dad.”
Beverly Chepelsky (top centre) and husband Joel Tetso (top right) have been together for two decades and have three children together. Tetso died in the Jan. 23 crash. (Judy Trinh, CTV News)
Chepelsky said her husband made the most of his days off by teaching his children to play hockey, snowboard and ride dirtbikes. He took pride in their achievements.
But after 17 years working in the mine, Tetso was longing for a change. During their last conversation, on Tuesday’s morning drive, the two of them discussed spending more time together. Tetso expressed interest in a job posting for a mechanic at the Fort Smith airport. As he got out of the car, Tetso told his wife he was going to submit his resume.
The 41-year old never got the chance.
Chepelsky heard news of the plane crash from her friends. For hours, she hoped the lone-survivor was her husband. But later on Tuesday night, an RCMP officer knocked at her door to confirm her worst fear.
“I am so broken. I don’t know what to do,” said Chepelsky.
That morning, Howie Benwell sat a few seats away from Tetso on the chartered Jetstream. His sister, Crystal Benwell, told CTV News her younger brother worked at Diavik for nine years. He was a heavy-truck driver who hauled rocks and precious minerals at the mine. Benwell had just celebrated his 30th birthday on Jan. 4.
Moments before the plane left the runway, Benwell posted a photo of the airplane’s wing from his window seat. The post read “On my way back to Lac de Gras”—the site of the diamond mine.
Fort Smith resident Howie Benwell, 30, died on a charter flight commuting to work at Diavik Mines on Tuesday (Judy Trinh, CTV News)
Benwell’s cousin Rosemary Rayuka Paulette says that he was funny, worked hard and loved playing guitar. Paulette had seen him a few weeks earlier and thinks about the conversations they didn’t finish.
“When someone passes away, it’s very devastating…It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
CTV News spoke to Paulette during a chance meeting in Yellowknife, more than 700 kilometers from Fort Smith, as she walked by the Diavik head office.
A grieving and shaken community
Diane Balsillie, another Diavik employee, was also on that plane. In a statement, her brother, Clayton Balsillie said that the impact of the Jan. 23 crash will be felt for a long time.
“This tragedy brings back traumatic memories from survivors and families who have had loved ones perish in similar circumstances of the years across the North,” Balsillie wrote in an email.
Diavik employs more than 1,200 people, most of them work at the mine, and can only get to work by plane.
The diamond mine is owned by international mining corporation Rio Tinto. Its CEO, Jakob Stausholm, knows the tragedy has shaken many employees. He announced he would travel from Australia to the Northwest Territories to offer “full support” for the team.
“We are feeling numb with the devastating news that we have lost dear friends and colleagues. I extend our deepest sympathy to the families, friends and loved ones of those who have been affected by this tragedy,” said Stausholm in a statement.
The CEO says the company will also work closely with authorities to understand the “full facts of what has happened.”