AS THE CANADIAN FORCES TRANSPORT plane bucked the arctic headwind 300 miles from the North Pole, M. Cpl. Jim Brown, 32, a search-and-rescue paratrooper, braced himself in the open doorway and peered into the howling black void. The aircraft, circling in zero visibility for six hours, had descended to 800 feet; now, at 1 A.M. on Nov. 1, a lull in the wind gave him and five others laden with medical packs the chance to try a risky jump. Their mission: to rescue survivors of a C-130 Hercules military transport plane that had crashed 30 hours earlier with 18 persons aboard. Although the crash site was only nine miles from Alert, the world’s northernmost land-based outpost, frustrated rescuers so far had been losing a deadly race against time and harrowing weather conditions. The winds were gusting up to 25 knots, and the temperature had risen to -7°F. “Let’s go!” shouted Brown. “Let’s get out of here and do some work!”
Brown led the jumpers out, tumbling forward into the darkness, snow blasting his face. The chute jerked open and in seconds he hit the ground and was dragged across the hard-packed snow. Scrambling to his feet, his headlamp switched on, he quickly gathered the billowing chute and joined the other parka-clad figures for a 15-minute trek toward the crash site, now lit by ghostly overhead flares dropped from circling planes. Pushed by winds that at times had plunged temperatures to -76°F—enough to freeze exposed skin in less than a minute—Brown soon saw the hazy silhouette of the rear fuselage and the looming tail section. “The first guy I found was in pretty bad shape,” he recalls. “Frostbitten, fractured knees, frozen left foot, fractured spine and hypothermia. He was in a daze, but after I checked him out, I told him, ‘You’ll be okay, fella. You’re gonna have a Christmas.’ ”
For those aboard the Hercules C-130 on a routine supply run from Thule, Greenland, to Alert, the ordeal began without warning as the pilot, Capt. John Couch, a 32-year-old veteran of the Gulf War, guided the plane’s descent into an eerie arctic darkness that is broken at this time of year only by two hours of pale light in the morning. The afternoon winds had dropped, and the airfield lights of Alert—a radar station on Ellesmere Island—were visible from about 35 miles away. Couch decided to land the transport visually, abandoning an instrument-directed approach.
Minutes later Couch informed his 13 passengers—three of whom were women—and four crew members to prepare for landing. Sue Hillier, 32, an Ontario hairdresser who’d been asked to cut hair at Alert, remembers strapping herself into her seat near some diesel-fuel drums and telling a man next to her how smooth the flight had been. Suddenly the plane dropped, and her stomach flipped. “We’re going to crash!” her neighbor yelled. In a massive explosion of wind and heat, jagged rock burst through the belly of the four-engine, turboprop transport. “My seat ripped out of the plane, and the next thing [I remember] was ice and sliding for what seemed like forever,” says Hillier. Pinned under a slab of metal, her windbreaker pants and boots torn off her body, she heard screams and watched people racing away from the flaming wreckage.
The aircraft had slammed down and skidded on a sloping, snow-covered plain, the impact severing the tail section and cockpit from the fuselage, strewing mangled debris over a mile-long path. Most of the passengers were hurled clear of the wreckage. Couch and copilot Lt. Joe Bales, 33, were uninjured but trapped in the cockpit. Bales, who moments before had seen Couch struggling with the controls, now heard the nearby pop of a liquid oxygen valve. Afraid of an explosion, the two men scrambled out an escape window just before the cockpit exploded into flame. Bales checked his broken watch; it had slopped at 4:30.
Awareness of the deadly cold came instantly. Protected only by flight suits and light jackets, Couch and Bales set about pulling people from the debris and searching with penlights for warm clothing and any useful survival items. One of the crew found a radio and briefly contacted the radar base to report the crash before the batteries died. Elsewhere, Bales propped up a man who had a sucking chest wound. “I just talked to him. He was having trouble breathing,” says the copilot. “He was helpless, such a gentle person. He just died.” Bales also remembers a lot of blood on some of the others. “The face wounds were real bad,” he says.
By evening, four were counted dead (one died on impact, and three perished within an hour). Of the 14 survivors, four could walk, eight were badly hurt, and two—including hairdresser Sue Hillier—could not be moved for fear they had spinal injuries. “I’m not going to leave you,” the captain told Hillier. With assistance, he built a protective snow-shield around her with a tarp, kept a warming fire going with bits of burnable debris and talked to her throughout the night. “I’ll never forget his voice,” Hillier says. “He saved my life.” Despite a blinding blizzard that soon struck the survivors, Couch never ceased aiding the injured. He even refused warm clothing, gloves and insulated mukluk boots so that others could have them. “There were no spare jackets, no spare mitts for John,” says Bales. “I don’t know how he did it.”
By Thursday morning, 11 of the survivors lay in sleeping bags in the tail section, huddled together for warmth. They ate candy from survival rations, and Couch made sure they answered periodic roll calls and rotated frequently to the slightly warmer center spot. Since the clothes on the shivering bodies would otherwise freeze to the metal floor, all the victims had to be turned often. Moving those with broken limbs always prompted horrifying moans and shrieks. Some people hallucinated, others had to be roused from dangerous deep sleep that made the survivors more susceptible to freezing.
Meanwhile, overhead, the rescue plane had marked the crash site with flares by homing in on an emergency locator transmitter that the survivors had taken from the wreckage. Since howling, whiteout conditions prevented an immediate recovery jump, other rescuers, in a bulldozer and two tanklike, all-weather vehicles called Go-Tracks, set out from Alert. Because a mountain range with peaks up to 8,500 feet lay between the base and the crash site, the convoy had to hug the jagged coast, inching perilously close to hidden ravines, cliffs and frozen-over bays and rivers. After the bulldozer sank through the ice, the 10-man team in Go-Tracks returned to the base for more food, water and fuel.
On the next trip, says rescue leader WO Fred Ritchie, 42, “we had better maps, but we were still navigating by wind direction and one guy walking out front with a flashlight. We had about five or 10 feet of visibility off to the sides. Someone even saw a few arctic wolves off a ways. It was frustrating and very slow, but we never thought of going back. We knew the clock was running and lives were at stake.”
After 22 hours of painstaking progress, Ritchie’s six-man ground team arrived at the crash site early Friday morning, an hour after the paratroopers had jumped. “It was like a scene out of some Stephen King novel,” Ritchie says. “There were lit-up triage tents and ghostlike figures with headlamps and flashlights. One of our guys was even spooked by an open, blowing parachute that came at him. He thought it was a polar bear.”
Rescuers stabilized the severely injured, who mostly suffered frostbite, frozen extremities, internal wounds and broken bones. Sue Hillier escaped with frostbitten toes and a neck sprain. However, heroic John Couch, a father of two young girls, had come to a slow, tragic end. Several hours before the rescue, he succumbed to the cold. At one point, Bales looked over at the captain’s face. “That’s when you really could tell he was no longer with us,” Bales recalls. He himself was already delirious from the cold, seeing vivid colors and rooms full of people he knew. Then, just as he thought he too was dying, a man in a jumpsuit appeared with a flashlight, and Bales vaguely realized that he’d been rescued. Four men and one woman had died, but 13 had survived.
Within hours the storm had passed, and the dehydrated, tearful, joyful survivors were flown to Alert by helicopter. All are recuperating in hospitals and homes across (Canada. Officials are still investigating the crash. Whatever caused the plane to drop so suddenly may never be known, but one thing does seem certain. Says Paul West, flight engineer on the C-130: “There are 13 people alive because of the efforts of John Couch. It’s because of him that we’re here today.”