Nunavut hunter recalls helicopter rescue gone wrong

One of the hunters who was stranded on an ice floe near Arviat, Nunavut, Wednesday recalls the harrowing experience.

Joe Karetak pulled pilot out of water as chopper broke through ice and began to sink

Joe Karetak of Arviat, right, used his harpoon to pull pilot Yvan Lavertu, left, from his helicopter after it broke through the ice during an attempted rescue. (Susanne Karetak)

Two hunters who were stranded on an ice floe near Arviat, Nunavut, Wednesday ended up saving the helicopter pilot who had been sent to rescue them.

It all started after the boat the two men were using to hunt seal started to take on water.

Joe Karetak said a Hercules aircraft spotted them in the middle of the night from a flashlight they were shining.

The aircraft dropped down walkie-talkies and sleeping bags, and the military hired a chopper from Custom Helicopters in Gillam, Man., to rescue them.

"When he first landed he had full power, so the helicopter wasn't having any weight on the ice. But he put the throttle down and right away it fell through. That's when it started sinking like right now," said Karetak.

Then, the helicopter turned on its side.

Karetak said he was wondering why the pilot wasn't getting out, when he saw the man was having trouble getting his headset off.

"For a few seconds I was just stunned. But I started thinking about the pilot and I got my harpoon and started running towards the helicopter."

Karetak pulled the pilot out of the freezing water using the harpoon and wrapped him in a sleeping bag to keep warm.

That's when two search and rescue technicians from the Hercules parachuted in.

While the pilot was keeping warm, Karetak said he had a remarkable memory – the pilot who had been sent to save them, Yvan Lavertu, had worked for Karetak in 1996. Lavertu had worked as a pilot for a company Karetak owned then.

About 30 minutes after the first chopper began to sink, a Griffon helicopter from Cold Lake, Alta., picked up Karetak, his son Napayuk, and the pilot, and took them to the health centre in Arviat.

They were all treated for hypothermia. Karetak said his son’s hands were frozen because he had been trying to keep a Coleman stove going.

The pilot went back to Manitoba Wednesday, but not before calling Karetak Thursday morning to thank him.

TSB might not investigate incident

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada might not launch an investigation into the incident.

Peter Hildebrand, the board’s regional manager in Winnipeg, said it will get a full account of the events from everyone involved. But he said right now, it doesn’t look like there are any factors which would give cause for an investigation.

"It looks like the circumstances are more related to the helicopter being on the ice and breaking through before it ever got in the air. It does not indicate the operator's flight procedures or the technical situation with the helicopter was an issue in this case," he said.