Nfld. & Labrador

DND tapes question N.L. role in search for lost boy on ice

Audio recordings obtained by CBC News raise new questions about the province's role in the search for a 14-year-old who died on the sea ice off the north coast of Labrador last winter.

Body of Burton Winters recovered from the sea ice near Makkovik on Feb. 1

Audio recordings obtained by CBC News raise new questions about the role of the Newfoundland government in the search for a 14-year-old who died on the sea ice off the north coast of Labrador last winter.

The recordings suggest emergency officials in the province were slow to react after they were alerted the first day Burton Winters was reported missing — Jan. 29.

Federal military search and rescue has been criticized for not sending help to the search area quickly enough during the four-day operation, but military officials didn’t know Winters was missing until the day after he was reported lost.

The body of Burton Winters, 14, of Makkovik, Labrador, was retrieved from the sea ice outside his hometown on Feb. 1. (CBC )

The RCMP were told that Winters was missing at 6:30 p.m. NT, Sunday, Jan. 29.

With volunteers on snowmobiles already looking for the 14-year-old, police said they didn't request air support from provincial officials until Monday morning.

It's up to the province to determine if the military is needed for air searches.

But recordings released to CBC News suggest RCMP in Makkovik did ask the province for help the day Winters was reported missing, but were told to call back in the morning.

'They won't even do it. I tried to do that the first time, they said oh no, call us back in the morning.'—Cpl. Kimball Vardy

One of the recordings released by the Department of National Defence to CBC News includes a conversation on the third day of the search. It’s between RCMP Cpl. Kimball Vardy in Labrador and a military search and rescue dispatcher, Capt. Kristin MacDonald, in Nova Scotia.

MacDonald tells Vardy to contact EMO — the provincial Emergency Measures Organization now known as Fire and Emergency Services (FES) — to arrange aircraft for first light.

"I think EMO should try to make some arrangements tonight so they're not caught off guard in the morning," said MacDonald.

An obviously frustrated Vardy responds that he doesn't believe EMO will start making preparations that night:

"You know what? They won't even do it. I tried to do that the first time, they said, 'Oh no, call us back in the morning, call us back in the morning,'" said Vardy, explaining that the RCMP had been down this road with EMO before on that first, crucial night of searching for Winters.

"We went through that the very first day. We requested it that night, they never even looked at anything until eight o'clock the next morning, and I don't think they were here until after 10 a.m. or ... no, it was actually almost one o'clock in the afternoon before the helicopter arrived."

RCMP response

A spokesperson for the RCMP took issue with the CBC’s timeline of events.

The police force issued a press release to "clarify" several points in the story.

The RCMP said CBC reports that the initial contact between police and Fire and Emergency Services occurred Sunday night were incorrect.

However, it was an RCMP officer — Vardy — who said on the tapes that the province was contacted.

The force maintains that did not happen.

Sgt. Marc Coulombe said Monday that police weren't aware of the tapes, or their contents, until they were published by CBC News.

"I was not party to any of the conversations between Cpl. Vardy and operational support services, but we can tell you that the tapes that were on the CBC website, those recordings were the first we've seen," Coulombe said.

"And we've asked [Joint Rescue Coordination Centre] for copies so that we can review them. And once we've reviewed those recordings, we may be able to look into this a little further and discuss it with Cpl. Vardy."

But Coulombe said police stand by what they've said all along — that a call was not made to the province for help until the next day.

"The first call that was made by the member in Makkovik was to the RCMP's operations support services right here in St. John's. The call to Fire and Emergency Services was not made until the morning of Monday, Jan. 30."

Coulombe said that on Sunday night the search was still confined to the ground as they had no idea what happened to Winters.

"Every search and rescue is conducted like — it's an investigation. And we have to gather the facts and follow up on the clues and bring in the assets required as we need them. The call to FES could've been done that Sunday night, yes. Would it have amounted to anything, we don't know. We didn't find the skidoo till the second day. It's very easy to try to be an armchair quarterback, but we have to follow, basically, investigational guidelines and techniques."

Province denies contact on 1st night

For its part, the provincial government insists it was not contacted the first night Winters was reported missing.

Another person who took part in the search, and was with Vardy the first night Winters was reported missing, said the audio recording raises questions that must be answered.

"We all thought the call [on the first night] was going out for air support," said Randy Edmunds, the Liberal MHA for the Torngat Mountains district of Labrador.

"This raises more questions and furthers [our] calls for an inquiry."

The teen's body was recovered on Feb. 1.

Within days, critics began raising questions about how the search was conducted and calling for a review to scrutinize what happened.

The Winters family still wants that inquiry because there are too many unanswered questions.

Click here to hear parts of the recordings that were obtained by CBC News.

Burton Winters walked 19 kilometres over rough sea ice after abandoning his snowmobile pictured below from a helicopter. (RCMP)


  • An earlier version of this story erroneously said that the body of Burton Winters was found on Feb. 2. His body was found on Feb. 1.
    May 08, 2012 1:30 PM NT