Search for Labrador boy lost on ice raises more questions

An investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate is raising questions about the Department of National Defence's response to a call to help a lost 14-year-old in northern Labrador.

Weather, equipment and protocol problems hindered the military

Burton Winters' abandoned snowmobile photographed from a helicopter over the sea ice outside Makkovik, Labrador.

An investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate is raising questions about the Department of National Defence's response to a call to help a lost 14-year-old in northern Labrador.

Burton Winters was last seen leaving his grandmother's home in the Inuit community of Makkovik on a Sunday afternoon almost eight weeks ago. He was reported missing that evening.

The next morning, DND was asked to send a helicopter to help local searchers.

But the military didn't dispatch a chopper for more than 36 hours and, by then, it was too late.

Burton Winters near his home on the northern coast of Labrador. (submitted)

Winters had abandoned his snowmobile after it became stuck in heavy snow and rough sea ice about 10 kilometres from Makkovik. He walked another 19 kilometres before he died.

Days after Winters' frozen body was recovered on Feb.1, military officials defended their decision not to fly when the call came on the morning of Jan. 30.

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"We have set guidelines when it comes to ceiling and visibility and in the case where we were looking at where that search was, it would have been deemed unsafe to fly," said Rear Admiral and Commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic David Gardam. 

The Fifth Estate has obtained the operational log related to the incident and it includes weather reports that contradict that statement. DND's guidelines say search and rescue helicopters need a 300-foot clearance and half-mile visibility to fly safely. The weather reports show they had twice that on Jan. 30.

Watch The Fifth Estate

The CBC's The Fifth Estate details how weather, equipment and communication problems conspired to slow the military's response to a call for help.

Lost On The Ice airs Friday at 9 p.m./9:30 p.m. NT on CBC-TV and will be rebroadcast on CBC News Network.

The military still didn't send a helicopter after the weather improved. When asked why not, officials replied: no one called them back to say they were still needed.

"We use a call-back system when we do ground search and rescue. No subsequent call was received, until the second call, which was on Jan. 31," said Gardam.

At the time, the military called it a "time-tested protocol," but The Fifth Estate could find no one who knew of it … not even the searchers who looked for Winters.

"No I haven't. Not as a ground search and rescue co-ordinator here," said Barry Anderson, a search and rescue co-ordinator on the coast of Labrador.

Rear Admiral David Gardam, the commander of Maritime Forces Atlantic, has defended the military's role in the search for Burton Winters. (CBC)

Neither had a 30-year veteran of the federal search and rescue system.

"If there was a time-honoured protocol it must've started that morning because I have never seen it," said Clarence Peddle, a former Canadian maritime search and rescue co-ordinator.

The Fifth Estate's investigation reveals that the military's real problem that day was not weather or protocol but broken equipment.

The military said the two nearest search and rescue helicopters in Goose Bay, N.L., were not in service that day. 

What the military has never publicly explained – and what the log reveals – is that the planes that normally accompany the military's search and rescue helicopters were also out of service. All three Hercules transport planes in Atlantic Canada were unable to fly.

That raises questions about the military's capability to respond to future emergencies at sea.

Watch the CBC's The Fifth Estate Friday at 9 p.m./9:30 p.m. NT on CBC-TV. It will be rebroadcast on CBC News Network.