It has been another brutal winter for much of Canada. In Labrador, it's the second coldest winter on record. The extreme cold is a reminder of how precarious life can be for people who live in remote regions and who rely on Canada’s search and rescue service when things go wrong. In late February, a Labrador teenager died after he walked away from his remote village and got lost on the ice. No one reported him missing for days so it’s doubtful even the best rescue service would have made a difference. But his death was a powerful reminder of 14-year-old Burton Winters, who got lost in a blinding blizzard but might have been saved if Search and Rescue had sent a military helicopter. Our story then raised serious questions about Canada’s search and rescue system – questions that three years later remain largely unanswered.
A 14-year-old boy on his snowmobile gets lost in a blinding blizzard on his way home in an isolated Labrador village. The local townspeople search into the night, and discover snowmobile tracks heading the wrong way -- out toward the coastal ice and the open sea beyond. Searchers call on the military, asking for a rescue helicopter to be dispatched at first light. Their request is denied, and for two more days the people of Makkovik mount their own rescue operation and try to find the lost boy in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable.
By the time Canada's Search and Rescue service does send a military helicopter to help find the boy, he's been missing for nearly 52 hours. Aerial spotters soon locate footprints not far from an abandoned snowmobile and follow the boy's tracks hoping to find him still alive. But it wasn't to be. Just over three days after he lost his way home, they found Burton Winters' body near an open patch of water. His footprints show he'd walked 19 kilometers, through the storm, in a desperate bid to get home before he finally succumbed to hypothermia.
His parents want to know why Canada's esteemed Search and Rescue service refused to help find the boy on the ice in time to save his life. "I just think about him walking and trying to get home and just not wanting to give up, and every night when I try to go to sleep that's all I can think about: my little boy, walking on the ice..."
the fifth estate reveals a web of excuses and a so-called "protocol" used to justify the decision not to send the helicopter which could have saved Burton Winters -- a defence which a veteran Search and Rescue official calls "a concoction."