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Drama: Airplane on Fire!

The plane crashed down, windows shattered, and flames blasted through the cabin. Survival seemed unlikely.

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Drama: Airplane on Fire!

“We’re not going to make it!” Pilot Marvin Boyd’s holler filled the cabin, over the Beaver float plane’s buzzing engine and vibrating fuselage. A wall of black rock and green trees took shape out of the fog. Flying just above the water’s surface, the aircraft heavy with passengers, cargo and fuel, Boyd pulled sharply on the controls in a last-ditch effort to steer out of a collision.

As the plane banked, a pontoon struck the rocky shoreline, absorbing some of the aircraft’s momentum. It then cartwheeled into the rocks, breaking off the engine, shearing the external fuel tank and spraying aviation gas into the fuselage.

The plane came to rest 30 metres from the water’s edge, engulfed in flames.

The thousands of islands that guard British Columbia’s central coast are rock-bound, home to the hardiest of organisms-kelp, starfish and barnacles. No roads serve the coast, only a ferry that makes a 22-hour run from Vancouver Island to the port city of Prince Rupert, in the northern part of the province. First Nations communities like Bella Bella and Klemtu rely on the ferry and small airports for connections to the outside world. One of the biggest industries is tourism: in the summer, anglers flock to lodges along the coast to catch salmon and halibut.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 11, 2014, Boyd was preparing to land a float plane at a wilderness lodge in St. John Harbour, 35 kilometres from Bella Bella. An experienced pilot, Boyd had logged 12,500 float-plane hours over a 29-year career. Since selling his own air charter service in 2009, he flew occasionally for his friend Don McNeice, who owned the aircraft, using it to service remote sport-fishing lodges throughout coastal B.C.

Inside the cramped, metal-clad cockpit sat McNeice and his mech­anic Richard Pick. Boyd had just retrieved both men from Shearwat­er, an isolated community tucked away on the eastern side of the Hecate Strait. This 130-kilometre-wide arm of the Pacific Ocean separates mainland North America from Haida Gwaii, the mountainous offshore archipelago formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. Waiting for them at St. John Harbour was Gordon McLeod, McNeice’s electrician.

The plane Boyd was flying was built in 1953; its single radial engine whirred noisily as it approached the bay. The inside passage was clear, but Boyd wasn’t surprised to see a fog bank hanging offshore. Fog is common on the coast, appearing suddenly, then ebbing and flowing in a narrow band above the sea. He circled three times to appraise the conditions. He knew the crew was eager to get home to Haida Gwaii for the weekend-and that the fog could very well linger for days. “So there was a bit of pressure to make it work,” he says. The green-and-white Beaver touched down in a spray of salt water and taxied to a floating barge where McLeod stood waiting.

Boyd worried over the time it took to get McLeod’s tools and supplies loaded up. Finally, with McNeice in the co-pilot’s seat and McLeod and Pick in the rear, Boyd reviewed his plan before throttling the engine for takeoff: he would skim the wat­er, searching for a break in the fog to ascend to the clear skies above. “I thought we could land and taxi back if it was too thick,” he says-a strategy he’d employed countless times before in other locations.

Sure enough, the fog was impenetrable. So, according to plan, Boyd dropped the wing flaps to set up for a landing. Just then, he spotted a sport-fishing vessel on the water, right where he anticipated coming down. Boyd had forgotten that these waters draw anglers, who boat to the area from several nearby lodges. His only option was to turn the plane toward shore, which he hoped to follow to a gap in the fog.

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Within seconds, he realized he was flying into a dead end. “The shoreline was leading me into a tight little cove,” Boyd says. Land was coming up fast, and the plane, labouring under a full-capacity load, couldn’t climb above the trees. “It was game over.”

Skipper David Bell was piloting the 14-metre Pacific Lure, along with a crew member and six guests. They were trolling for salmon just off of Cheney Point, north of St. John Harbour. From the helm, two storeys above the water, Bell watched a float plane materialize out of the fog on his starboard side, at almost eye level. “It was coming straight at us,” says Bell. “Had he banked left, he would’ve hit us.”

Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the Beaver swooped toward shore and into the fog. Bell glanced at his navigational instruments. “I knew right away there was no way it would clear that cove,” he says.

He steered the boat in the direction of the inlet. Out of the fog, he could see a flaming ball of wreckage. Because of shoals near shore and the size of his vessel, Bell was unable to do much more than issue a mayday relay-a broadcast to all mariners to lend assistance. He recorded the latitude and longitude coordinates and keyed the boat’s VHF marine radio. He ended his call with, “I don’t think there are any survivors.”

Back on the docks of the lodge in St. John Harbour, Richard Mellis’s gut sank when he heard Bell’s mayday crackle over the VHF. Mellis, who works for McNeice as a mech­anic, was supposed to be aboard that float plane with his colleagues but instead had decided to stay behind to finish last-minute jobs.

He and a fishing guide hopped in an aluminum boat and raced in the direction of the crash, which he suspected was about two kilometres away. Mellis steeled himself for a grisly scene. “I heard ‘plane crash’ and I had a feeling it had to be them.”

Sensing Boyd’s desperate turn, Pick instinctively tucked his head between his knees and braced. The plane plowed into the rock shelf, windows shattered, and flames blasted through the cabin. Pick immediately elbowed open the rear door of the crumpled, burning aircraft and escaped.

After appraising his body for injuries and discovering only a tender spot on the top of his head, Pick re-entered the plane through the back door. Over the unnerving whoosh of combusting fuel, he heard McLeod moan, barely conscious after slamming his head against the metal backside of the pilot’s seat. Pick lunged in, released McLeod’s seat belt and hauled him out. McLeod’s head was bleeding profusely. Pick grabbed his arm and guided him toward a pile of rocks a few metres away, then bandaged McLeod’s wound with his shirt.

Less than a minute after impact, McNeice regained consciousness. He glanced to his left and saw Boyd slumped down in the seat, unconscious, pinned by the controls and his seat belt. Flames raged around his legs and feet. As he attempted to free Boyd’s motionless frame, McNeice’s own pants caught fire. He exited and hurried to a tidal pool to douse the flames.

Boyd remained in the plane. “We couldn’t leave him in there,” says McNeice, whose knees and shin were badly scorched. “If there was a chance, we couldn’t stand and watch.”

McNeice climbed in the co-pilot’s door and released Boyd’s seat belt. From the back seat, Pick grabbed onto Boyd’s belt. Together, the men managed to extract Boyd’s limp body from the fuselage.

Boyd’s jaw was mangled, his arms and face nearly charred. His lower body suffered the worst: his work pants and boots had been eaten away by flames, his skin scalded to the point that tendons were visible in his feet and legs. Boyd’s circulatory system was struggling to compensate for the fluid loss from third-degree burns covering nearly a third of his body. He lay practically naked on the rocks. Without medical intervention, it wouldn’t be long before his body succumbed to the trauma.

McNeice removed his shirt and wrapped it around Boyd’s head. It was all he could do to stop the bleeding. Nearby, McLeod was also wavering in and out of consciousness, with Pick’s shirt sopping with blood that still flowed from his head. “Talk to me, Gord!” McNeice kept yelling at him, to keep him awake.

Gripped by adrenalin, McNeice ignored the oozing burns on his limbs. Soon, he would feel the pain of his injuries. Only Pick, his face reddened from the heat, was unharmed. But as the plane blazed behind them, the men had no emergency gear-and no means of summoning help.

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News of the crash travelled fast across the marine airways. The RCMP and Coast Guard-both with units at Bella Bella for a First Nations weekend celebration-deployed high-speed inflatable boats and large patrol vessels stocked with medical equipment to the crash scene. A rescue helicopter was dispatched from Comox, B.C., only to be thwarted by the fog.

Meanwhile, a party of seven B.C. doctors on their annual fishing trip heard the mayday and reeled in their lines. Their guides boated them to the scene, 30 minutes away. “It was choppy,” recalls Michael Garrard, an emergency-room doctor in Williams Lake, B.C. “You had to hold on so as not to fly out of the boat.”

Richard Mellis was the first responder, arriving within 15 minutes of the crash. “I saw four people away from the wreckage,” he recalls. “Two were hunched over, like they were really beat up, and two were sitting.” While the guide manoeuvred the boat close to shore, Mellis leaped onto the slimy rocks, his arms full of survival suits he had pulled from the fishing boat. “I knew everyone would be cold and in serious shock,” he says. “I wanted to make them as warm as possible.”

A second lodge boat arrived from St. John Harbour a few minutes later, and Mellis and two other men focused on moving Boyd first. “Three of us locked arms and made a human stretcher to get Marvin off the rocks,” recalls Mellis. “His burns were severe. We just did a slow move and made it. I was up to my waist in the water holding the boat still so they could lift Marvin in.”

Next they assisted Pick and McNeice onto one boat and McLeod onto another.

With the victims on board, the vessels motored toward Bella Bella, knowing from transmissions on the radio that they would soon intercept the better-equipped mar­ine units. Boyd and McLeod were transferred to Cape Farewell, a Coast Guard rescue vessel, and McNeice and Pick were moved to the RCMP patrol vessel Lindsay. By the time the doctors arrived, split up and attended to the injured, Coast Guard first-aiders had dressed Boyd’s burns and McLeod’s head injury.

“A lot of things happened in their favour-the fishing charter, the doctors, the fact that Bella Bella had extra resources that weekend,” says Constable Dale Judd, who arrived at the scene in an RCMP inflatable. Between 2000 and 2009, 29 workers died aboard small aircraft, accounting for most of the commercial aviation fatalities in B.C. “The crash happened a long way from nowhere. You look at the map and realize just how far you are from the Vancouver hospital.”

Boyd finally returned home to Haida Gwaii from Vancouver’s G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in September; he expects to recover “100 per cent” and fly again. McNeice received skin grafts on his left leg. His treatment kept him on bedrest for most of the summer, changing his approach to business. “I was a workaholic,” he admits. “But when I was recovering, I couldn’t do anything except a little phone and email. I wasn’t there, and everything still ran fine.” With nothing more than singed hair, Pick went right back to work.

McLeod, who recovered from a severe concussion at home in Victoria, is grateful for Boyd’s quick response at the controls. “If he hadn’t swerved, I don’t think I’d be talking to you today,” he insists. For his part, the crash reminded Boyd of a prediction he had made to his wife early in his flying career. “I had told her, ‘If I ever get in a jam, it’s going to be with the fog,'” he says. “But this was worse than a close call. To survive, it was a miracle.”