A male pilot and a female Alberta government worker have been killed in a helicopter crash north of Fort McMurray, Alta., in terrain so densely wooded that emergency responders had to cut trees down to create their own landing pad at the scene. A male government worker is in stable condition in hospital.
The helicopter is owned by Aurora Helicopters Ltd., which runs Wood Buffalo Helicopters. On Wednesday evening, president and operations manager Michael Morin would not comment by telephone but sent out a news release stating one of his company's helicopters crashed about 125 kilometres north of Fort McMurray at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
"We are deeply saddened by this event and feel the loss greatly," Mr. Morin said in the statement.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford and Environment Minister Diana McQueen issued a joint statement Wednesday evening on the deaths of the helicopter pilot and the government of Alberta employee, identified as a biologist.
"I offer my deepest sympathies to the families involved in this tragic event," Premier Redford said. "The loss of a family member, coworker or friend is truly one of life's biggest challenges, and I hope that those close to the individuals find comfort in friends and loved ones during this difficult time."
"I wish a quick and full recovery to the third victim, also a member of the Alberta public service, who is currently in hospital with serious injuries."
Ms. McQueen said "another department biologist is currently in hospital suffering from significant injuries sustained during the crash. I wish him a speedy and full recovery."
She added: "I ask all Albertans to extend their thought and prayers to all those affected by today's sad events."
Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development spokeswoman Jessica Potter confirmed late Wednesday that the woman who died in the crash was a department employee. She said the passenger who was injured was also a government employee.
Local helicopter pilot Paul Spring, the owner and operator of Phoenix Heli-Flight – another Fort McMurray helicopter company – said three of his fleet of 10 helicopters were called to deliver emergency responders to the site.
Mr. Spring said he believes the helicopter was part of a wildlife survey. He has no indication of what went wrong.
"Today's a nice flying day. Blue sky. Puppy clouds," he said.
Mr. Morin said his company "will not be releasing the names of anyone who was involved in the occurrence. That information may be provided later by the RCMP, once all next-of– kin notifications have been made."
His statement also said Aurora Helicopters will co-operate with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada's investigation.
Mr. Spring, who has worked around helicopters in the Fort McMurray area for three decades, was not on the scene himself, but said the crash site is in an area known as Birch Mountain. He said despite the name, the ground slopes upwards from a river valley to what is more akin to a plateau about 300 metres high. He said no oil sands mines are in the imm ediate area, which is accessible only by helicopter.
And helicopters could land in the remote area – which has been experiencing a number of forest fires in recent weeks – only because forestry fire crews cut an emergency helipad, he said.
"By the time our guys got there, they could land," Mr. Spring said. "There was a pad cut big enough for two helicopters."
RCMP members were sent the scene, and the Canadian Armed Forces dispatched two aircraft to help.
"Our investigation still continues into this matter," Wood Buffalo RCMP Constable Christina Wilkins said Wednesday evening.