16-year-old survivor of Fond-du-Lac plane crash thought he 'was going to die'

Willie John Laurent says one of the last things he remembers before Wednesday night's plane crash in Saskatchewan was it turning sideways in the air and the people aboard screaming.

Timothy Fern says he was knocked unconscious during the crash and was soaked in jet fuel

Timothy Fern, 16, was on the plane when it crashed. Fern said he was knocked out during the crash and woke up, still strapped into his seat and upside down. (CBC)

When a plane went down after taking off from Fond-du-Lac, Sask., on Wednesday, 16-year-old passenger Timothy Fern says he was knocked unconscious.

When Fern awoke, he was still strapped in his seat, hanging upside down. He said his eyes, nose and mouth were burning from jet fuel. 

"I just noticed the trees were coming closer to me as I was looking out [of the window]," Fern said of the moments before the crash. "I just really thought I was going to die."

Fern then noticed that his cousin, Lyman Fern, who was sitting next to him during takeoff was gone. Fern said he crawled out of the plane and spotted his cousin.

"I told him he flew out of the plane because his seat was gone, he wasn't there," Fern said. "His belt snapped."

Fern said he then saw a woman, "hanging off of the plane" with her face covered in blood. Fern said he helped the woman down, and used her phone to call police but there was no answer. Fern and his cousin then set out to find help.

Twenty-two passengers and three crew members were aboard the aircraft when it crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday from the Fond-du-Lac, Sask., airport. (Raymond Sanger)

Fern was among 22 passengers, two pilots and a flight attendant on the ATR-42 plane, which left the airport in the northern Saskatchewan community at around 6:15 p.m. CST, and was scheduled to travel nearly 80 kilometres to Stony Rapids. 

Crash investigators arrive

David Ross, the main investigator assigned by the Transportation Safety of Canada (TSB) to probe the causes of the crash, said his Winnipeg office was first told about the accident 20 minutes after the plane hit the ground.

Ross, who arrived in Fond-du-Lac Thursday afternoon, said he and a fellow investigator would be in the community for "at least a couple of days."

David Ross, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's lead investigator on the crash, said he and other investigators would be in Fond-du-Lac for a few days. (CBC)

"We'll be looking at the equipment, the aircraft, the operation of the aircraft, the operator [West Wind Aviation], examining the wreckage, looking at weather conditions, examining the maintenance of the aircraft and any other relevant information," said Ross.

Other groups were expected to join the TSB in Fond-du-Lac, including the manufacturer of ATR planes and Pratt & Whitney Canada, which makes the type of engine used in the ATR-42 that crashed.

Once the field phase is over, the investigation will continue from the TSB's offices in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Gatineau.

'Just like a dream' 

Mounties found the crashed plane less than a kilometre from the airstrip. There were no fatalities, but several people were injured.

As for Fern, he said it's a miracle everyone survived, describing his own injuries as "a few bumps and bruises."

Willie John Laurent said one of the last things he remembers before the crash was the plane turning sideways in the air and the people aboard screaming. 
Willy John Laurent, band councillor in Fond du Lac First Nation, recounts what happened as the plane started to go sideways shortly after takeoff 1:00

Laurent is a band councillor with the Fond-du-Lac Denesuline Nation and was travelling with his wife, Helen Laurent, and daughter when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff from the airport in the remote fly-in community of about 900. 

"Everyone was trapped on my side [of the plane]," Laurent said, more than 13 hours after the incident. "I crawled over the seat, because the aisle was all crushed. There was no aisle because it was all bent together." 

Laurent said he is in pain on one side of his body, from his shoulder down, but his daughter is in worse shape after sustaining some serious injuries and a bloody face.

Helen Laurent said she initially thought the plane was going through some bad turbulence but realized it was much worse when passengers started screaming. 

"To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened. It was just like a dream," she said. 

The area where the plane crashed has been sectioned off by authorities. (Courtesy The StarPhoenix)

'Unity was involved'

Don Deranger, a consultant adviser for Fond-du-Lac, said he received a call about the crash minutes after it happened. Deranger credits community members and first responders for their immediate response.

"Everybody was involved and that's how the community came forward," Deranger said, during a phone conference hosted by the Prince Albert Grand Council. 

"I'm very pleased that people came together. Unity was involved." 

Community member Raymond Sanger told CBC that after learning about the crash, he rushed to the scene to help. He found the plane by following the passengers' screams.

Fond-du-Lac resident Raymond Sanger went to the crash site with his son to help extract people from the wreckage. (Courtesy The StarPhoenix)

Coreen Sayazie, chief of the Black Lake Denesuline Nation, called those who responded heroes.

"We're the far north. We're all family.... Everybody knows everyone and we come together when [tragedy] happens, even though we're far apart and isolated," Sayazie said.  

There were multiple injuries but no fatalities after the crash in northern Saskatchewan. (CBC)

Diane McDonald's mother, Ernestine McDonald, and sister Brenda McDonald were also passengers. Diane McDonald spoke with CBC News from the waiting room at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon on Thursday morning, where her mother is being treated. 

"Everybody's traumatized," she said. 

McDonald said her mother is doing well and her sister is now in Stony Rapids. When she received the call about the crash, McDonald said she first thought about the people on the plane and their families. 

"It doesn't make it easy for us because we just lost our father two months ago," McDonald said.

"With this, it's just so heartbreaking, but I'm so thankful that everybody got out safely." 

Rick Philipenko, the chief financial officer of Saskatoon-based West Wind Aviation, said in a news release late Wednesday that the crash is under investigation.

"At this time, the cause of the accident is unknown and the Transportation Safety Board has been advised."

Diane McDonald spoke to CBC as her mother, a passenger on the plane, was in hospital following the crash. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

TSB investigators at site

Investigators from the TSB's bureau in Winnipeg have been deployed to the crash site, but it is still too early to determine the cause of the crash, said J.P. Regnier, a senior investigator with the board's air branch. 

The investigators are expected to arrive in Fond-du-Lac around 4 p.m. local time. They will immediately start assessing the situation and begin collecting data, including interviewing those who responded to the crash or were in the plane.

"Unfortunately, it's a very traumatic effect," Regnier said. "But we're very happy that everyone survived."

Regnier added the TSB will take its time to conduct a thorough investigation, which may mean it could be a year or so before a final report is released.

"If we do uncover any serious safety deficiencies during the course of the investigation, we're not going to wait — we'll report on those publicly."

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition, News Network, Dan Zakreski and Olivia Stefanovich