Burlington paramedic's father mourns his son's death in Ornge crash

A Burlington paramedic was one of four staff members killed overnight Thursday after an air ambulance helicopter crashed in a remote area of northern Ontario.

"Ripped the heart out of me," John Snowball says of his son Chris's death on the last flight of his current Ornge tour in Friday's air ambulance helicopter crash near Moosonee

Investigators were sent to the crash site in northern Ontario involving Ornge's Sikorsky S-76A helicopter. Four people — two pilots and two paramedics — are confirmed dead. (Supplied)

John Snowball was devastated when he found out his son Chris was on the air ambulance helicopter that crashed in a remote area near Moosonee, Ont. overnight Thursday.

"It just ripped the heart right out of me," Snowball told CBC.

The 38-year-old married father of three from Burlington was one of four staff members killed when helicopter he was riding in, carrying no patients, left Moosonee at about midnight. It was heading northwest to Attawapiskat to pick up a patient as part of a routine transfer.

Contact with the Sikorsky S76 helicopter was lost shortly after takeoff.

Snowball's 39th birthday was to be next week on June 4 — the same day his daughter turns four. He also has a 16-year-old daughter and a two-and-a-half year old son.

Chris Snowball, a primary care flight paramedic from Burlington, was one of the four people who died in the Ornge helicopter crash overnight Thursday. (Facebook)

Snowball's last words to his father came Thursday evening on Facebook. "He said 'goodnight, I love you,'" the elder Snowball said. "I said 'I love you too man.' That's the last time I spoke to him."

Then just before 4 a.m., he got a phone call from Chris' wife. She told him the helicopter was missing.

"Right away I knew something was wrong," Snowball said.

Then the news broke that there had been a crash, and there were no survivors.

"I just lost it," Snowball said. "I normally try not to show my emotions but I just lost it. This is a nightmare."

'Hit a lot of people'

Snowball had been working in Northern Ontario for about two years in a part time position with Ornge. He was on his last flight in Northern Ontario before moving on to another position when the helicopter went down.

"When I heard the news this morning I called in to ask if Snowball was on there — and sure enough, he was," said Stephanie Nesraooah, a receptionist at Wabusk Air Ambulance where Snowball had once worked.

"It has really hit a lot of people here."

Nesraooah told CBC Hamilton that Snowball had started work at Wabusk around five years ago, but took a leave of absence to work part time at Ornge. He was just about to finish up his first assignment there for a more stable position in Thunder Bay, she said.

"He was a very good guy," she said. "Very family oriented and enjoyed the outdoors."

Snowball's father says the father had lived for his family and his job.

"If he saved somebody's life he was ecstatic," he said. "If you save somebody's life, that's a great accomplishment."

"He wanted to be a flight paramedic more than anything else."

Aircraft received 'continuous maintenance,' officials say

On Friday, Ornge confirmed the names of the other three who died in the crash:

  • Captain Don Filliter of Skead, Ont.
  • First Officer Jacques Dupuy of Otterburn-Park, Que.
  • Primary-care flight paramedic Dustin Dagenais, of Moose Factory, Ont.

"We express our sincere condolences to friends and families of those who have died," said Dr. Andrew McCallum, president and CEO of Ornge.

The helicopter, one of six such craft in the fleet, was built in 1980 and had received continuous maintenance, Ornge chief operating officer Rob Giguere told a late-morning news conference.

Snowball said his son had said the Sikorsky helicopters were in good shape. "He said they were always well-maintained. He had no problems flying in them."

Giguere said two helicopters based in northwestern Ontario have been taken out of service for the time being as a precaution.

"We don't have any concerns in that regard," he said.

"However, out of an abundance of caution, until we get an initial report from the Transportation Safety Board, we have taken the two helicopters that would have been in service today ... out of service."

The two helicopters currently grounded are based in Thunder Bay and Kenora. Ornge said contracted carriers, its own fixed wing aircraft and local EMS services are still available to transport patients, including the patient in Attawapiskat who was supposed to be picked up by the ill-fated helicopter.

'Everything was normal'

The accident happened at about 12:11 a.m. ET after the Sikorsky S76 helicopter departed from the Ornge Moosonee base.

The last voice contact with the crew was prior to the aircraft's departure.

Weather at the time was overcast, he said in response to questions. There was good visibility and only light rain.

When asked about reports the aircraft "blew up" after takeoff, Giguere said, ""We're not aware of that report," but noted the "wreckage is 0.7 nautical miles from the departure point."

"Everything was normal," Giguere said, adding the men handling the helicopter were a "professional crew." The captain was "well-experienced" and "well known."

Cause of the accident isn't known. It will be investigated by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, and Ontario Provincial Police earlier said they would also investigate.

Ornge said it will co-operate fully with investigators.

With files from CBC's Mike Crawley and The Canadian Press