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'It occurred to me that I was drowning': Survivor recalls terrifying N.W.T. plane crash

Shariff Adam isn't sure exactly how he managed to get out of the plane: perhaps through a broken window, perhaps through the door. Either way, he was lucky enough to be wearing a lifejacket and floated to the surface.

Shariff Adam escaped a submerged plane and spent a cold night stranded on an island

'You always hear that if you're drowning the best thing to do is remain calm,' says Shariff Adam. 'It was hard... I was trying to breath but there was just water and I remember gathering myself at one point and thinking, 'I need to find the seatbelt, I need to find the seatbelt.'' (CBC)

First the body-jarring boom, then the blast of freezing water.  

"Next thing I remember I was upside down just trying to gather myself," says Shariff Adam, recalling a terrifying plane crash that happened 90 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife last week.

The engine failed, a pontoon hit the water, and the plane immediately flipped. (submitted by Shariff Adam)
He and pilot Ken Quackenbush had been out for a short scenic flight around Gordon Lake when the plane's engine began to fail.

"We were sitting there and [Quackenbush] was flicking switches and I felt the plane, kind of going down. He was doing what he could, and then he just said, 'Oh shoot.'

"Mentally I had an idea that something was going on, but it happened so fast that it didn't really occur to me that something was really happening."

The plunge likely took seven or eight seconds, says Adam. But to him, "it felt like forever."

Trapped upside down

A pontoon hit the water, and the plane immediately flipped, leaving Adam and Quackenbush upside down and underwater.

"Panic set in. I started kicking and pushing myself, and it occurred to me that I was drowning," says Adam.

"You always hear that if you're drowning the best thing to do is remain calm. It was hard... I was trying to breath but there was just water and I remember gathering myself at one point and thinking, 'I need to find the seatbelt, I need to find the seatbelt.'"

He's not sure exactly how he managed to get out of the plane: perhaps through a broken window, perhaps through the door. Either way, he was lucky enough to be wearing a lifejacket and floated to the surface.

The two men scrambled onto the fuselage of the floating plane.

"I remember standing there on the body in between the two floats. I could see Ken, he was bleeding from his head… I remember looking down at the plane, there was a little pool of blood and initially I thought that it was coming from Ken... then I looked at my hand and it was completely gashed open."

(submitted by Shariff Adam)

'Are they going to find us?'

The two men were in the middle of the lake, perhaps two kilometres from the shore, says Adam. With a paddle that had been strapped to a pontoon and the help of a strong wind, they managed to get the semi-submerged plane to an island.

What followed was disappointment, as search and rescue planes buzzed by without seeing them.

"You would see the plane and we'd be standing there with this bright orange tarp waving it … they just weren't looking in that area. So it was hard just thinking, 'are they going to find us?' We know they're looking for us. But are they going to find us?"

Night settled in and the two men huddled up in a hovel built from birch branches and garbage bags. They had no matches or lighters to start a fire, but at least Quackenbush had managed to salvage bags of food and clothes from the submerged cockpit.

"It was cold, but it definitely helped having Ken there," says Adam.

'Big hugs... it was pretty emotional'

"When the helicopter came, he was going down the one way and we knew he'd be coming back pretty much right over us," Adam recalls.

It was the next morning, almost a day since the crash.   

"Ken was standing on a point way out in the open, and I came back to the other side of the island and I had my bright blue coat ... I was just waving hysterically, jumping, trying to get any sort of movement that I could.

The plane crashed into Gordon Lake, about 90 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife. (CBC)
"You could see the helicopter moving pretty fast and all a sudden you saw it stop, and then it started circling back around."

Adam says the pilot was surprised to see the two men, both alive and both able to walk.

"Big hugs," remembers Adam. "It was kind of hard to speak at the time, it was pretty emotional. I think there was a lot of shock too."

A week later, the experience is still settling in, says Adam.

Has it changed him?

"Hard to say yet," he says. "I feel maybe a little bit more relaxed in a sense, just being at home makes me feel less tense. More thankful, I guess, for the people around and the support."

Particularly those involved in the search. 

"It's really heartwarming to know there's that many people that will drop what they're doing and get ready and go right away."

with files from Randy Henderson

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