Well Done the SAR Team.

North Island plane crash kills pilot, injures two. Daring mountainside rescue saves pair at rugged North Island crash site

Matthew Kruchak, Times Colonist, with files from CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, July 16, 2007

When Warrant Officer Jeff Warden responded to a fatal plane crash southeast of Port McNeill on Saturday, he knew it wasn't going to be routine. He was right.

It turned out to be one of the toughest search and rescue missions in his 16-year career of saving lives.

Inside the downed aircraft was National Hockey League prospect Glenn Olson, 23, a left-winger last season with the Worcester Sharks of the American Hockey League. He was in critical condition along with a 22-year-old male passenger who has yet to be named. Pilot Mike Xylinas, 34, was dead in the cockpit.

They were headed to the Merritt Mountain Music Festival when their plane went down nose first 24 kilometres southeast of Port McNeill near Mount Kinman, at the south end of Nimpkish Lake.

They were surrounded by rugged backcountry.

Just before 1 p.m., Warden, a search and rescue technician (SAR Tech) with the Comox Rescue Co-ordination Centre, received a call from a Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre dispatcher. The centre had picked up the emergency locator transmitter signal of the plane that had departed Port McNeill destined for Merritt, 86 kilometres south of Kamloops.

Warden and Master Cpl. Bruno Lapointe, a SAR Tech from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre, were ordered to board a Cormorant helicopter from Canadian Forces 19 Wing Comox and head to the crash site.

The majority of ELT signals are false alarms, Warden said. They're so sensitive they can go off on hard landings and pilots never notice.

"A lot of times that's what we expect it to be, but it was so remote we knew it was something more serious."

And it was.

An hour later they spotted the crash site from above. That was the easy part. Getting to it by foot would be the challenge, he said.

Warden and Lapointe were lowered from the helicopter and found themselves in a mountainous area overgrown with thick underbrush.

"It was your worst nightmare as far as terrain to travel through," Warden said.

They got their gear ready -- weighing about 70 to 90 kilograms -- and trekked to the crash site. It only took about 10 minutes but they couldn't see where they were stepping because the brush was so thick, he said.

"It was like hacking and slashing through everything."

As they approached the crash site, exhausted and sweating, they started calling for survivors.

"We're over here. Come help us," Warden heard a distressed male's voice coming from the wreckage.

But he wouldn't discover it was Olson's for another 10 minutes because the plane was "pretty twisted" and branches filled the inside, which had to be cleared.

When he reached the mangled wreckage, he assessed the situation.

The pilot was dead. The 22-year-old was in a semi-conscious state. "He was broken up and it was difficult to determine how much longer he was to last," he said, realizing the man had brain injuries.

"I had to get him to the hospital quick."

Lapointe was hoisted first to the Cormorant, flown by Capt. Rob Johnson, followed by the injured man. They flew to Port McNeill where the man was taken to hospital.

Warden remained on the ground and worked on getting the 6-foot-4, 220-pound hockey player, with a broken leg, ribs and shoulder blade, unpinned.

"I did everything from cutting to hacking to bending to breaking to pulling out seats and cargo and electronics," he said.

By the time the helicopter returned, Warden had freed Olson. They hoisted him up and flew him to a Comox hospital.

A relative of the hockey player said he's in intensive care with broken ribs and a collapsed lung but would not comment further.

Olson had one assist in 21 games last season with the Massachusetts-based team, while racking up 51 penalty minutes.

He signed with the San Jose Sharks in 2003 and is now a free agent.

Xylinas had more than 10 years of flying experience and flew the route before, said John Wirth, a longtime friend. "He was an amazing pilot and he flies to Vancouver all the time. He's done many, many, many flights."

The community of Port McNeill, population 2,623, was shaken by the accident. Several residents declined to comment yesterday because of distress.

Port McNeill RCMP and B.C. Coroner's Service are working in conjunction with the North Island Search and Rescue Team to investigate the accident.

Transport Canada and the Transport Safety Board have been notified.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007