Transcript of interview with Nicole Williamson
Exclusive interview by Peter Mansbridge with Nicole Williamson, 23-year-old student at Ottawa’s Carleton University, and one of only three survivors of First Air Flight 6560, which crashed near Resolute on August 20, 2011.
Airs Monday, September 19, 2011 on The National
Peter Mansbridge: I WANT TO START WITH WHAT IS CLEARLY A PASSION YOU’VE GOT FOR THE NORTH, FOR THE ARCTIC. HOW IS THAT, WHY IS THAT?
Nicole Williamson: Honestly, it all stems from being sent up there last summer for the first time. My mom has been up North a lot, so I guess – I didn’t realize it but when she came back from her field season on Ellesmere Island and wherever else and she would talk about it and show us pictures, that must have had some sort of effect and had gotten me excited about going up there one day.
But as it happens, there was an opportunity for a Masters project on Victoria Island. And I took that opportunity mainly because of the field experience it would give me, and the location
So I went up there last summer. And as anyone who has been up there can tell you, once you go to the Canadian Arctic, you always want to go back.
Peter Mansbridge: THE GREAT THING ABOUT SOME OF THE NAMES, VICTORIA ISLAND, IT SOUNDS SO ROMANTIC AND SPACIOUS AND BEAUTIFUL AND ALL THOSE THINGS. BUT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT RAW BEAUTY IN THE ARCTIC, IN THE SENSE THAT YOU’RE IN PLACES THAT PERHAPS NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN BEFORE.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, and that’s one of the most exciting parts is you’re left by your helicopter pilot in the morning to do an 8 to 10 kilometre traverse and you’re probably going to walk over land that either has never been walked over before or very little by the local people who live there. And that is so exciting.
I mean, that’s what attracts a lot of geologists, you know. You’re essentially an explorer, a modern day explorer, and it’s a lot of fun.
Peter Mansbridge: AND WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DETERMINE WHEN YOU’RE DOING THE GEOLOGIST THING ON ISLANDS LIKE VICTORIA ISLAND?
Nicole Williamson: Well, this was the location of a big mapping initiative by the Geological Survey of Canada. So most of our time spent up there was mapping the bedrock and basically to create a better geological map of Canada’s Arctic.
And then on the side, we had lots of students, about 10 or 12 of them, doing various Masters projects or PhD projects just to sort out the science behind the rocks there and basically build a story. So geologists in a way are kind of – they’re just historians for the earth.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU KNOW, THE LAND AND THE KIND OF AWESOME BEAUTY OF IT ALL IS ONE THING. THE PEOPLE ARE SOMETHING ELSE. NOW YOU DIDN’T GET TO SEE A LOT OF PEOPLE WHEN YOU’RE OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF A SURVEY, BUT YOU DEALT WITH THE INUIT AND THAT’S PART OF THE PASSION TOO.
Nicole Williamson: Oh, yeah. The local community we work with, Ulukhaktok, is just an amazing place that I also fell in love with, and so did all my co-workers. And the people are fantastic, absolutely fantastic. And I look forward to the day when I can go back and see them again. I don’t know when that will be now that the project is done, and I’m on my last year of my Masters. But I know it will happen because they’re just absolutely lovely people and a lot of fun to work with.
Peter Mansbridge: AND THE NORTH IS NOT SOMETHING YOU’RE GOING TO ABANDON.
Nicole Williamson: Of course not, no.
Peter Mansbridge: ONE OF THE THINGS THEY SAY ABOUT DEALING WITH THE INUIT, THE PEOPLE OF THE NORTH, IS THAT LOCAL LEGEND BEARS A LOT OF WEIGHT IN SO MANY DIFFERENT AREAS OF WORK. DOES IT STRETCH OVER INTO THE KIND OF WORK YOU WERE DOING AS WELL?
Nicole Williamson: I don’t know actually. I didn’t really encounter very much of that, to be honest.
We did find - and this is pretty exciting, when we’re on our traverses and we come across a structure of some sort, a very old structure. And we were actually asked to document those every time we found one. Take pictures and then they were going to be sent to the people who deal with those things, the archaeologists and what not. So that was very interesting.
And that is just a really cool experience when you think you’re just in this barren land and then you come upon a structure, either like the meat caches they used to build or even inukshuk. And you’re like, wow.
I remember this one, actually last summer this one canyon we climbed up. And we got to the top and there was an inukshuk there and that was pretty spectacular. Because, you know, you’re just physically exhausted from climbing up the side of this river canyon, and then you find this and you’re like, wow. That’s amazing.
Peter Mansbridge: AND CAN YOU HAVE ANY SENSE OF, OF HOW OLD IT MAY HAVE BEEN? I GUESS ONE OF THE PROBLEMS, BECAUSE OF THE WAY WEATHER BEATS DOWN IN THE ARCTIC, STUFF CAN LOOK PRETTY OLD PRETTY FAST.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, that’s true. And when you find it, there’s not really any way to know. When we come back to camp we mention it to the locals who are there helping us and sometimes they’ll know. And they’ll say, oh yes, this is from so and so, and sometimes they don’t know. So that’s cool, yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: NOW ONCE YOUR PRIMARY SUMMER PROJECT THIS YEAR WAS FINISHED, YOU SUDDENLY GOT THE OPPORTUNITY FOR SOMETHING ELSE. TELL US ABOUT THAT.
Nicole Williamson: Yes. Our field season on Victoria Island ended in early August this summer. So I decided that it would be a good idea to try and find a one month contract of work somewhere in the exploration industry to gain more experience. So I was hired by Aurora Geo Sciences in Yellowknife and got some experience with them.
Peter Mansbridge: AND WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING FOR THEM?
Nicole Williamson: They’re a consulting company, geophysics and geology. And so my co-worker Robin and I were heading – we were heading up north, further north for a consulting job and we had to pass through Resolute.
Peter Mansbridge: SO IT WOULD BE A SIMILAR KIND OF WORK TO WHAT YOU’D BEEN DOING.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah similar work.
Peter Mansbridge: JUST A DIFFERENT LOCATION.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: SO THAT BRINGS US TO THE YELLOWKNIFE AIRPORT ON AUGUST 20TH. TELL US ABOUT THAT.
Nicole Williamson: Ah well, it was interesting because I actually met Gabrielle. Gabrielle is the 7-year-old girl who also survived. I met her that morning at the ticket counter. She looked at me and said, "Where are going?" And I said, "I’m going to Resolute, where are you going?" And she said, "Me too!" She said, "We’ll be on the same plane." I said, "Oh that’s exciting." (chuckle)
Peter Mansbridge: AND SHE WAS WITH HER LITTLE SISTER?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, she was with her little sister. So after that I went into the waiting lounge and that’s where I first met Marty. He was introduced to me by Robin, my co-worker, and we –
Peter Mansbridge: AND MARTY IS OF COURSE MARTY BERGMANN, WHO WAS A GOOD FRIEND OF MINE, A GOOD FRIEND TO MANY CANADIANS BECAUSE HE INTRODUCED SO MANY PEOPLE THROUGH MANY DIFFERENT WAYS TO THE ARCTIC. HEAD OF THE POLAR CONTINENTAL SHELF PROJECT IN RESOLUTE. SO, YOU’VE GOT THIS RELATIVELY SMALL GROUP OF PEOPLE IN THE YELLOWKNIFE AIRPORT.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: FIFTEEN, I GUESS, IF YOU COUNT THE CREW WHO ARE GETTING READY FOR THAT FLIGHT.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: SO, IS IT A LONG WAIT IN THE WAITING ROOM?
Nicole Williamson: It wasn’t that long. I think it was probably 40 minutes or so. I mean I got there early, and we were all there pretty early. So I think the plane was schedule to leave at 8 and we ended up leaving a little bit later.
Peter Mansbridge: DO YOU REMEMBER WHAT YOU TALKED ABOUT, MEETING SOME OF THESE PEOPLE?
Nicole Williamson: Well, I actually – I mainly chatted with Robin and Marty. And actually took great pleasure in listening to their conversation because they were exchanging stories about their experiences in the North. So I was pretty happy to sit there and listen to these two men who have done so much up there. And I’m a newbie when it comes to the Arctic. So ah basically acting as a sponge. (chuckle)
Peter Mansbridge: IN SOME WAYS MARTY KNEW YOU BECAUSE HE KNEW YOUR MOTHER. BECAUSE SHE’S DONE SIMILAR WORK AS YOU HAVE IN THE ARCTIC. DID YOU TALK ABOUT THAT?
Nicole Williamson: No, that didn’t come up, actually.
Peter Mansbridge: SO THEN YOU GET ON THE PLANE.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: IS IT ASSIGNED SEATING OR DO YOU DECIDE WHERE YOU WANT TO SIT WHEN YOU GET ON THE PLANE?
Nicole Williamson: Well, that’s also an interesting story. And I think a very lucky circumstance because when I got to the ticket counter that morning the kind lady behind the desk asked me if I prefer, you know, the usual process. "Do you prefer a window seat or an aisle seat?" And I said, "Well typically I prefer the window seat because I like looking out the window at wherever we’re going." And I can’t quite remember exactly what she had said. But it sounded like all the window seats that they like to fill up first had been filled.
But then she said, well it’s okay, we’ll put you in this one anyway. And it was the window seat right at the front, at the cargo-passenger interface, 17A, and that’s where I had sat.
Peter Mansbridge: BECAUSE WE SHOULD – WE SHOULD REALIZE THIS PLANE WAS PRIMARILY A CARGO FLIGHT IN MANY WAYS. THERE WAS A LOT OF CARGO ON THERE HEADING UP TO RESOLUTE BAY FOR WINTER SUPPLIES.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: SO WHAT WOULD NORMALLY BE FOR MOST PEOPLE THE FRONT PART OF THE AIRCRAFT PASSENGER SEATS THE SEATS WERE TAKEN OUT –
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. Right.
Peter Mansbridge: –AND IT WAS FILLED INSTEAD WITH THE CARGO. SO YOU’RE SAYING YOU’RE IN THE FIRST ROW IMMEDIATELY BEHIND THE CARGO.
Nicole Williamson: Yes. And that was approximately, well it was row 17. It was just behind the wing of the plane.
Peter Mansbridge: AND ON THE WINDOW.
Nicole Williamson: And on the window, yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: AND IS THAT THE ONLY CONSIDERATION YOU MAKE WHEN YOU GET ON A PLANE. WHEN YOU PICK A SEAT IT’S SORT OF LIKE THE VIEW?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. Well the view. I mean if they tell me I need to be in the front of the plane that’s fine. But as long as I can sit next to a window to see – to see outside. (chuckle)
Peter Mansbridge: AND WHO WAS BESIDE YOU? ARE THERE PEOPLE BESIDE YOU?
Nicole Williamson: No, there was no one beside me. And Robin came and sat next to me for a little bit to chat. And he told me we’d get a tour of the polar continental shelf location and I was excited about that.
But other than that, actually I do recall Robin and Marty sitting behind me and continuing their conversations about their experiences in the North. And ah –
Peter Mansbridge: MARTY LOVED TO TALK.
Nicole Williamson: Yes. (chuckle)
Peter Mansbridge: HE LOVED TO TALK.
Nicole Williamson: Well, I enjoyed sitting there and listening to them. It was a lot of fun.
Peter Mansbridge: SO IS THIS THREE SEATS? YOU’RE IN A THREE SEAT PROPORTION.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, it was three seats on either side of the plane.
Peter Mansbridge: AND SO THE TWO BESIDE YOU WERE EMPTY.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: AND THIS FLIGHT FROM YELLOWKNIFE TO RESOLUTE IS TWO HOURS, THREE HOURS?
Nicole Williamson: Ah that’s a good question. I think it was ah three hours - closer to three hours. Yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: AND DO YOU RECALL ANYTHING ABOUT THAT FLIGHT OTHER THAN THE BOYS TALKING BEHIND YOU ABOUT ARCTIC STORIES? WAS IT, WAS THERE ANYTHING UNUSUAL ABOUT THE FLIGHT?
Nicole Williamson: No, not at all. It was very normal. I did the normal listen to music, read a book, look out the window kind of thing, you know. I had my camera next to me. I was ready to take pictures if there was a lot to see upon landing. So it was a very normal flight.
Peter Mansbridge: AND OUT THE WINDOW YOU’RE SEEING WHAT, CLOUD? OR ARE YOU SEEING –
Nicole Williamson: Mainly cloud. We saw some ocean. And then once we started flying over land we saw some land. But mainly cloud, and then a lot of fog.
Peter Mansbridge: THIS IS AS YOU GOT CLOSER TO RESOLUTE.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, as we got closer and as we started our descent it was very foggy out. So I remember –
Peter Mansbridge: WAS ANYBODY SAYING ANYTHING ABOUT THAT?
Nicole Williamson: Um, no.
Peter Mansbridge: WERE THERE ANY ANNOUNCEMENTS?
Nicole Williamson: Not really because fog is a – is a very typical thing in that location. I mean there’s always – almost always fog. And ah and they’re very well equipped to deal with foggy situations so I didn’t really think anything of it.
Peter Mansbridge: THE OTHER PEOPLE ON THE PLANE - WAS IT JUST A REGULAR FLIGHT FOR THEM? DID YOU SENSE THE GIRLS, GABRIELLE AND HER SISTER? DID YOU KNOW WHERE THEY WERE IN RELATION TO WHERE YOU WERE?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, they were behind me and I could hear them every once in a while. And, and, but I mean it felt like a normal flight.
Peter Mansbridge: AND SO THEN WE GET TO THAT POINT WHERE THEY START ANNOUNCING, YOU’RE ABOUT TO LAND AND YOU KNOW, TABLE TRAYS UP AND SEATBELTS ON AND SEATS STRAIGHT BACK. ALL THAT HAPPENED AS NORMAL.
Nicole Williamson: Yup, yup. Ah yeah we started our descent and we were told the usual. Bring your seat backs up and put your trays away and that was all fine and normal. And actually the wheels came out and you could feel the –
Peter Mansbridge: YOU COULD FEEL THE WHEELS RETRACT.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah the wheels came out.
Peter Mansbridge: DID YOU SEE ANYTHING ON THE GROUND? DID YOU EVER SEE –
Nicole Williamson: You could see bits and pieces of the ground. But it was pretty foggy.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU NEVER SAW RESOLUTE AS SUCH.
Nicole Williamson: No. No.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU NEVER SAW BUILDINGS.
Nicole Williamson: No. I saw Resolute for the first time when I was sitting on the hill waiting for the firemen to come up us.
Peter Mansbridge: WELL LET’S GET TO THAT POINT THEN BECAUSE WAS THERE ANY SENSE THAT THERE WAS ANYTHING WRONG, BEFORE IT WAS CLEAR THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG?
Nicole Williamson: Absolutely not. There were no sights, no smells. There were no noises. It was – it was completely sudden and violent, but the key is that it was sudden. It just came out of nowhere.
Peter Mansbridge: NOW, I’M TOLD YOU REMAINED CONSCIOUS THROUGHOUT ALL THIS?
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU REMEMBER EVERYTHING.
Nicole Williamson: Mhmm. (nods)
Peter Mansbridge: SO WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER?
Nicole Williamson: It was fairly spectacular. Well I remember a whole lot of things at the same time because this was instantaneous and we – we hit the ground, and it was very violent and there was a huge crashing noise.
And as soon as the impact occurred I – my instincts, I guess, caused me to bring my hands up in front of my face and close my eyes. So I didn’t see very much, but from the force of the impact my eyes didn’t really remain closed very efficiently. And I saw the plane come apart.
It came apart exactly – I’m convinced it came apart exactly where I was sitting. Because I remember seeing – you know, like when a plane comes apart you see the wires and metal and – and I felt it.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU FELT IT IN THE SENSE YOU FELT THESE PIECES DRAGGING ACROSS YOU, OR –
Nicole Williamson: It just – like you feel everything just falling apart around you I guess is the best way to describe it. But – so I basically did not let go of this position until I came to a full stop.
And it took a while because I recall having the time to think, how am I not knocked out? How am I still conscious and alive? And it was – I was confused as to how I was – I was rolling and tumbling through all this stuff and just couldn’t understand why I was still conscious and –
Peter Mansbridge: AND YOU’RE PROBABLY GOING AT A CONSIDERABLE RATE OF SPEED HERE.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm. (nods)
Peter Mansbridge: YOU HIT THE GROUND AT, WHO KNOWS, A HUNDRED, 120 MILES AN HOUR. AND YOU’RE – THE FORCE OF YOUR BODY AND WHAT YOU’RE SITTING IN IS STILL BEING PROPELLED AT SOMEWHAT LIKE THAT SPEED.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah right, Exactly.
Peter Mansbridge: AND IT’S FLIPPING OVER? YOU’RE ROLLING OVER?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, I recall a lot of rolling and then I remember hitting the ground and then rolling along the tundra to my left-hand side. And then I came to a stop on my right-hand side with my seat still attached to me.
Peter Mansbridge: THIS IS THE ONE SEAT YOU WERE IN, OR THE THREE SEATS --
Nicole Williamson: The one seat. And it was only the portion – really just the portion you sit on. So the portion that’s behind your back and the portion that’s under your bum and then your seatbelt and I was still strapped in.
Peter Mansbridge: EVERYTHING IS STRAPPED IN.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. And I’m convinced that’s probably what preserved my back from being injured. Although having the seatbelt on my hips probably caused the fracture in my pelvis.
Peter Mansbridge: HAVE YOU ANY SENSE OF – OF TIME IN THAT – FROM THE MOMENT OF IMPACT TO THE MOMENT WHERE YOU STOPPED MOVING?
Nicole Williamson: Ah not really. It’s very – it’s difficult to think in terms of time because it was instantaneous. And I guess the best I could say is after some time of rolling, you know, like a little bit of time, but I don’t know if I could assign a number to it.
Peter Mansbridge: SO JUST TO RELIVE THAT MOMENT, AT IMPACT, SUDDENLY EVERYTHING OPENS UP, YOU KNOW, RELATIVELY SPEAKING, WITH ALL THESE THINGS HANGING DOWN -- OPENS UP IN FRONT OF YOU AND YOU’RE PROPELLED FORWARD?
Nicole Williamson: I don’t even know. I couldn’t tell you that. I know – I know that once we hit the ground I was jerked forward.
Peter Mansbridge: RIGHT.
Nicole Williamson: But then after that it just felt like I think I was travelling where if the plane was going this way, I was travelling this way at that point and got dropped off kind of to the left of where we were travelling.
But whether I was thrown forward or out this way or the side I have no idea at all. It just felt like a jumble of rolling and flying through the air.
Peter Mansbridge: SO YOU’RE CONSCIOUS. YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN SOME DEGREE OF SHOCK.
Nicole Williamson: Yes.
Peter Mansbridge: AND YOU’RE TRYING TO ASSESS WHAT’S HAPPENING IMMEDIATELY AROUND YOU.
Nicole Williamson: Right. Well, when I came to a stop, I remember swearing a lot. I’m going to be honest. I was breathing heavily and swearing and trying to figure out what was going on
Peter Mansbridge: LIKE OUT LOUD YOU WERE –
Nicole Williamson: Yes, I was swearing out loud. ( chuckle) And it all kind of came to me. Okay, well we – there was just an accident, a very bad accident. And I looked around and realized just how bad the accident was because there was nothing left around me. There was barely anything left around me.
So, and I could see from my sideways position the tail of the plane was about a hundred feet away and it was on fire. Lots of dark smoke, very scary looking. And ah –
Peter Mansbridge: SMELLS?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: BURNING RUBBER? BURNING FUEL?
Nicole Williamson: And it’s funny you mention that because I think what occurred to me – the very first thing that occurred to me when I stopped moving was the smell. It was this really strange mixture of metal and wet mud and fog and fuel. And it’s not really a smell combination you would ever smell under normal circumstances. So I think that’s what I noticed first. And then what –
Peter Mansbridge: IT WAS DARK.
Nicole Williamson: It was – well it was grey out. It was –
Peter Mansbridge: THIS IS MID-DAY ROUGHLY.
Nicole Williamson: Yes, but it was foggy.
Peter Mansbridge: RIGHT.
Nicole Williamson: It was pea soup around us. So it was – it was very eerie because it was grey and kind of drizzly through the fog. And here’s this like tail of the plane I had just been sitting in, not very far, aflame.
And I felt – at this point my body felt the same, whether it was my foot or my head. It felt like I had been through a spin cycle and I was just beaten to a pulp and just swelling by the second.
And what got me to unbuckle my seatbelt and try to stand up is that I heard Gabrielle not very far.
Peter Mansbridge: THE LITTLE GIRL, THE 7 YEAR OLD.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. And I heard her ah calling out and crying. So –
Peter Mansbridge: WHAT WAS SHE CALLING OUT?
Nicole Williamson: She was calling out for help basically. And, I mean, it was difficult to tell. She was crying.
Peter Mansbridge: DID YOU SEE HER?
Nicole Williamson: I couldn’t see her at this point. I was facing the wrong direction to see her. So I unbuckled myself and slowly got to my feet. And once I was on my feet I could see her because she wasn’t very far from me. She was sitting on the ground so –
Peter Mansbridge: YOU’RE ON YOUR FEET. YOU’VE GOT A SHATTERED FOOT, YOU’VE GOT A BROKEN PELVIS.
Nicole Williamson: Well I didn’t know I had a shattered foot at that point. Everything felt the same. (chuckle)
Peter Mansbridge: BUT YOU MUST HAVE – BUT YOU WERE IN PAIN EVERYWHERE.
Nicole Williamson: Yes I was in pain everywhere and – but I mean in –
Peter Mansbridge: YOUR FOCUS WAS TO GET TO HER.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. Well I mean you don’t know until you’re in this kind of situation, but your self-preservation kicks in and I mean, after such an impact you see fire and you think, ooh, I should get away from that. I should be a little bit further from that.
And especially if there’s a child – you hear a child and you think, oh I need to go see if this child is okay. So I did. I went and she wasn’t very far from me and she had a very clearly broken leg.
And I remember actually she looked at me and said, "This is my very first plane crash." And I said, "Well not a lot of people can say that. So we need to be brave and we need to move away from where there’s fire."
Peter Mansbridge: AND YOU DID HAVE TO GET AWAY.
Nicole Williamson: Yes.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU HAD TO BECAUSE IT WAS CLEARLY DANGEROUS IN THAT PARTICULAR SPOT.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. Well whether it was or not really, I don’t know. I mean the fuel is usually kept in the wings, right? And the wings were nowhere to be seen. So we were too close for comfort. And so I guess rational thought told me that I should move away and take Gabrielle.
Peter Mansbridge: AND HOW DID YOU DO THAT? LIKE DID YOU WALK? DID YOU CARRY HER AND WALK?
Nicole Williamson: No, I did not carry her.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU HAD TO CRAWL.
Nicole Williamson: No, well I walked. But ah I just held her under her left armpit basically. And we hobbled away together. And actually not very long after we started our slow steps away, I found my co-worker Robin. And the reason I hadn’t seen him before is because he was sitting behind a pile of what looked like passenger seats and general rubble.
And he sat on the ground very stunned and also injured. So I found him.
Peter Mansbridge: WAS HE UNCONSCIOUS?
Nicole Williamson: No, he was conscious at this point, although ah believes that he did lose consciousness during the impact so – I found him and he asked me what happened.
Peter Mansbridge: AND ALL THREE OF YOU WERE CLEARLY – HAD BEEN THROWN OUT OF THE AIRCRAFT.
Nicole Williamson: Yes, yes. Yeah, the three of us had been ejected from the aircraft, yeah.
Peter Mansbridge: AND YOU ASKED HIM WHAT HAPPENED OR HE ASKED YOU WHAT HAPPENED?
Nicole Williamson: He asked me what happened and I said, well I think we – I think our plane crashed into the side of a hill. And so he said, oh. And I said, and there’s – the tail is over there and it’s on fire, so I think we should move away from that. And he agreed and he got to his feet and the three of us shuffled our way further.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU SOUND LIKE SO CALM AND, AND RATIONAL AND THOUGHT THROUGH ALL THIS. WAS IT REALLY LIKE THAT?
Nicole Williamson: Yes it was. It really was like that, because in a situation like that there is no room for irrational thought. There’s no room for hysterics because you – and really, I think that any human being in this position would act this way. Because your self-preservation button goes on and so your body does not let you go into hysterics.
I was amazed at Gabrielle, though. She is one of the most intelligent and level-headed 7-year-olds I have ever met in my life. And she was – you know, a child in that kind of situation could easily be in hysterics or ah start having an anxiety attack. And then how do you deal with that on top of your own injuries?
But she was just perfectly calm. Perfectly calm. And she was afraid and cold and crying but she was very calm.
And I tell everyone whenever I tell this story, that she rescued me just as much as I rescued her. Because when we were waiting for the firemen to come, she talked to me and I talked to her. We both kept each other warm so –
Peter Mansbridge: AND IT WAS HER SCREAMS THAT SNAPPED YOU OUT OF SITTING IN THE SEAT.
Nicole Williamson: Right. I heard her and that’s what got me moving away from the fire so –
Peter Mansbridge: WAS SHE LOOKING FOR HER SISTER?
Nicole Williamson: Yes, she was. But I told her that she had to think of happy things in that situation. And that got us on the topic of things like ponies.
Peter Mansbridge: LYING THERE IN THE RUBBLE AND YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT PONIES?
Nicole Williamson: Well, we were sitting against the hill waiting to be found. And you know, you distract a child as much as you can. And I’m a horseback rider, so I asked her if she had ever been on a pony before. And she said yes. So we talked about that.
Peter Mansbridge: THERE WERE 12 OTHER PEOPLE ON THAT PLANE.
Nicole Williamson: Mhm.
Peter Mansbridge: DID YOU SEE ANY – ANYTHING TO INDICATE WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO THEM?
Nicole Williamson: No. Absolutely nothing. And that, that was also one of the eeriest parts of this whole experience is that once I stood up there was no – there was no one around me. I could hear Gabrielle but I couldn’t see anyone and there was very limited amount of rubble even around us. There was one wheel. There were pieces of fuselage and the tail and paper everywhere, oddly enough. But there was no one. And, and that worried me a lot, I would say.
Peter Mansbridge: NO SOUNDS.
Nicole Williamson: No sounds. No sounds. Sound of burning, but no sound. And we could hear Resolute. We could hear the calm of activity not very far. So that gave me hope that we would be found sooner than later as well.
Peter Mansbridge: BECAUSE WHEN YOU CONSIDER THE CANADIAN ARCTIC AND THE PLACES THIS COULD HAVE HAPPENED, HAPPENING IN RESOLUTE ON THAT DAY, IT TURNED OUT TO BE AN INCREDIBLE PIECE OF LUCK FOR THE SURVIVORS.
Nicole Williamson: A very lucky circumstance. And I don’t allow myself to think about another – any other kind of circumstance. I don’t allow myself to think about how – what would have happened if Operation Nanook had not been going on. Ah what would have happened if we had crashed further, sooner I guess. We were only a couple of kilometres from Resolute.
And once the fog lifted we could see Resolute. We could see the airport right there. It was very close, so it was a very lucky circumstance.
Peter Mansbridge: SO YOU’RE SITTING WAITING ON THE SIDE OF THE HILL. THE FOG LIFTS. YOU SEE RESOLUTE AND YOU SEE THE RESCUERS COMING TOWARD YOU. AND THIS IS ALL WITHIN LIKE A HALF AN HOUR OR LESS.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, about half an hour. So we were sitting in the fog and I actually – I remember hearing a plane overhead and then after about 20 minutes I heard sirens coming from directly in front of us.
And then I heard them going off to the right. So um I then assumed that they were going up the next hill over because we were kind of on this hill and then there was a steep dip, almost a ravine and then another hill off to our right. And I could hear them going off that hill and then the sirens faded a little bit.
And I was like, okay well they’ve gone up the next hill over. Once the fog lifts a little bit more they’ll see that we’re actually on this hill. And sure enough the fog thinned a bit, and we heard them kind of coming a little bit more closer in our direction.
And the fog lifted a bit more and then I assumed that they probably saw the smoke because it was very black and it was actually blowing in that direction. So I figured they had seen the smoke.
And then finally we saw the fire trucks on the hill, the next hill over. And ah once the firefighters realized that the wreckage was on our hill, they – they started running over. The trucks couldn’t drive over because of that steep little dip in between. But the firefighters ran over and that’s when we started – I started yelling and flailing. Robin encouraged me to do so. Because he actually couldn’t speak very loudly. So I put my voice to good use.
Peter Mansbridge: AND DO YOU RECALL THE FIRST CONVERSATION YOU HAD WITH ONE OF THOSE RESCUERS?
Nicole Williamson: I actually don’t really. But I believe it was along the lines of: are you okay, what are the injuries. And Robin started going through a list of, of what he suspected the three of us had – the broken leg, the gashes on the head. He knew he had broken ribs because he could feel it.
And I said well I think my foot is broken but I kind of all feel the same right now so – I’m not quite sure.
Peter Mansbridge: AND THEY WERE ALL OVER IT RIGHT AWAY? THEY WERE –
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, yeah. They were excellent. They, actually between the firemen making their way to us, during that time the fog lifted almost completely. And at this point actually when they had come upon us, we could see Resolute in front of us. And we could see the military setups and we could see the Griffon chopper that was sitting on the tarmac.
And within another five minutes the Griffon had taken off and just come and bopped over to where we were to bring us down.
Peter Mansbridge: WHAT DO YOU SAY ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE FROM OPERATION NANOOK, THE MILITARY EXERCISE?
Nicole Williamson: They were amazing. They were absolutely amazing. Boy, they were ready. They had everything set up. They were there simulating an air disaster and they got one right on their front door, quite literally.
And so they were set up for this kind of situation and they did very well. I would give them an A plus.
Peter Mansbridge: THINGS MOVED VERY RAPIDLY FOR YOU THEN AFTER THAT. YOU GOT PUT ON THE CHOPPER, TAKEN BACK DOWN INTO RESOLUTE.
Nicole Williamson: Yup.
Peter Mansbridge: AND THEN VERY QUICKLY YOU’RE ON ANOTHER FLIGHT.
Nicole Williamson: Yup. They attended to our injuries as best they could and then put us on the C17 to send us to Iqaluit.
Peter Mansbridge: AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOU WERE THE ONLY THREE GOING TO BE COMING OFF THAT HILL?
Nicole Williamson: I actually – I only found out later that night in Iqaluit. Because I was convinced that while I was in Resolute I could hear them bringing in more casualties. But I don’t know if that was – I guess maybe that was just my imagination.
But I actually asked the nurse in Iqaluit. I asked her, "What about the other passengers? When are they flying over?" And she said, "Well, there are none. There are no others." And that hit me like a ton of bricks.
Peter Mansbridge: WHAT DID YOU THINK WHEN YOU HEARD THAT?
Nicole Williamson: I – holy smokes, this is serious. This is a very serious accident. You know, you’re so preoccupied in your own, you know, your own survival and, and getting away from the danger and keeping the child warm and like dealing with the pain. And then, and then you sit and think about it and it was very shocking to me.
Peter Mansbridge: NOW YOU’VE OBVIOUSLY TALKED WITH YOUR COLLEAGUE, ROBIN. HAVE YOU TALKED WITH GABRIELLE AS WELL SINCE THEN?
Nicole Williamson: Yup, yup. Um, we had a couple of visits in the hospital in Ottawa. And we had a visit recently as well in our own home. And she’s doing good; she’s doing very good.
Peter Mansbridge: IS SHE A FRIEND FOR LIFE NOW?
Nicole Williamson: I think so. Definitely think so. Um and you know she’s so young. She’s 7 years old. When a child goes through something like that at such a young age – when they’re 15 or 16 they’re going to have a lot more questions than they do now.
So if I can give her anything, it’s someone that can answer maybe those questions the best I can and, and talk to her about it when she’s older or whenever she needs it.
Peter Mansbridge: HOW ARE – HOW ARE YOU DEALING WITH THIS A MONTH LATER NOW? ARE YOU HAUNTED BY THAT MOMENT?
Nicole Williamson: Well I think about it every day still, which I think is normal.
Peter Mansbridge: WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT IT? WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT?
Nicole Williamson: I just, I mean memories of, of the accident. And I thought a lot about the families that were affected. And ah I mean to lose a parent when you’re a young child is just unimaginable to me and that’s caused me a lot of sadness.
But I mean that’s part of the grieving process, right? But in terms of nightmares I haven’t had any nightmares. I think I’ve been dealing it – dealing with the whole situation very rationally–
Peter Mansbridge: I’LL SAY.
Nicole Williamson: …which is my nature.
Peter Mansbridge: IT’S AMAZING. THAT IS WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT YOU, THAT YOU HAVE LED YOUR LIFE IN MANY WAYS THAT WAY.
Nicole Williamson: Yeah. Well I’ve had to actually force myself to deal with it a little bit more, you know, through the heart a bit and tell myself, well this is your time to grieve. And I have grieved.
Peter Mansbridge: DO THINGS COME BACK? LIKE I ASSUME WHEN YOU SAY YOU KIND OF RELIVE THOSE MOMENTS, ESPECIALLY THAT – THAT KIND OF MIND BOGGLING PERIOD OF WHATEVER IT WAS, 10, 15, 20 SECONDS OF BEING THROWN OUT OF THE PLANE AND ROLLING, ROLLING, DO YOU RELIVE THAT? HAVE MEMORIES COME BACK ABOUT THAT THAT HAVE BEEN BURIED?
Nicole Williamson: Well no, not really. Actually, I wrote down the entire story recently so that I could remember it. Because it’s not something I really want to forget actually because it’s quite an extraordinary thing to go through something like that and be alive at the end of it.
So I wanted to write it down, so I wrote it all down. And that was interesting because I had to, like I had to sit there and think really hard about every single detail of that day.
But I mean, that doesn’t happen on a regular basis. I’ll just think about one moment or another and then – and then go on with my daily business.
Peter Mansbridge: WHAT’S THE LESSON FOR YOU IN THAT DAY?
Nicole Williamson: The lesson. I don’t know if I could really identify the lesson yet. I think that’s something that I might be able to pinpoint in the future when it comes to me. I mean, these things happen right? Planes crash all the time.
Statistically speaking, there’s very small probabilities of it happening, but they happen. So it’s just part of life on planet Earth. I mean, my friends can tell you, I’ve always been a person to seize the day and live my life to the fullest in all directions at once.
So in terms of that kind of life lesson, I sat in the hospital and thought, why me? I don’t need this life lesson. But I’m convinced that other lessons will come from it.
I’ve learned about the power of having friends that love you so much. Because I didn’t go one moment alone in the hospital that week I was in Ottawa.
My hospital room looked like a greenhouse at the end of it. The nurses were getting frustrated. I had so many flowers. I had so many visits. I had family come, and my friends – it was like an army had been summoned. And they looked after my mother and they looked after my father. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing that’s impacted me so far.
Peter Mansbridge: YOU SAID SOMETHING INTERESTING A MOMENT AGO. YOU SAID, WHY ME? NOW I KNOW WHY YOU WERE SAYING IT, AND WHAT YOU WERE SAYING IT ABOUT. BUT SOME MAY ASK, DO YOU ALSO THINK, WHY ME? WHY DID I SURVIVE?
Nicole Williamson: Yeah, I get that question. I mean, my brain tells me that it’s purely where I was sitting. It was luck of the draw. I was sitting in a fortunate seat and my co-worker was sitting directly behind me. So, and Gabrielle was behind him so –
Peter Mansbridge: SO THERE’S 17A, 18A, 19A.
Nicole Williamson: I’m not quite sure where Gabrielle sat. She may have sat in the middle. But she was on the same side of the plane and behind Robin, so - my brain tells me that it was, you know, where I was sitting.
And whether it was something else, I, I mean I guess that’s – that remains to be seen.
Peter Mansbridge: SO THE NEXT TIME YOU GET ON A PLANE WHERE YOU DON’T NEED TO BE CARRIED ONTO IT AND YOU’RE WALKING ON (Nicole laughing) AND YOU’RE BOOKING YOUR SEAT, ARE YOU BOOKING 17A?
Nicole Williamson: (laughs) Um, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think I’ll just leave it to luck of the draw again. You know, you say, "well I would prefer a window seat" and they put you wherever the next available window seat is. It worked for me that day so – hopefully it will work for me in the future. (chuckle )
Peter Mansbridge: IT SURE DID. NICOLE, YOU’RE AN AMAZING PERSON.
Nicole Williamson: Thank you.
Peter Mansbridge: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR DOING THIS.