2012 Burton Winters

On the evening of Sunday, Jan 29, 14-year old Burton Winters was reported missing from his home in Makkovik in northern Labrador. He had been last seen leaving his grandmother’s house earlier that afternoon, heading home on his snowmobile. When local townspeople went out to search for him, they found his snowmobile tracks heading in the wrong direction, heading away from shore towards the coastal ice and open sea. Burton had gotten lost in a blizzard.

The community called the Department of National Defence for help with search and rescue team but their request was denied.  According to the Globe & Mail,

Two Griffon helicopters [in Goose Bay] were both briefly out of commission for maintenance or repairs when the military was first asked to help in the search on Jan. 30, the morning after Burton went missing. The military later said bad weather was also a factor and that a Cormorant helicopter was not dispatched because it might have been needed for a marine rescue.

According to the CBC and Fifth Estate, the military defended its decision because the ceiling and visibility were too poor to fly safely. Search and rescue helicopters require a 300-foot clearance half-mile visibility to fly. However, the Fifth Estate found that weather reports show that they had twice that on January 30. Moreover, even when the weather did clear, a search and rescue helicopter was still not dispatched because, the military says, no one called them back to say that it was still needed. The Fifth Estate found that a “call-back protocol,” which was cited to defend the decision not to send a helicopter even after the weather improved, was not known by search and rescue co-ordinators with decades of experience. A second request for a helicopter wasn’t made until Jan 31, at which point one was dispatched. At that point, Burton Winters had been missing for 52 hours.

Burton’s snowmobile was found on the ice about 11 km from his home town on Jan 31. His frozen body was found on Feb 1. He had died of hypothermia and exposure after walking 19 km from his snowmobile, which he had abandoned when it became stuck in the ice.

There is widespread public feeling that Winters might have been saved if a search and rescue helicopter had been sent when first requested. The province has promised an inquiry but it has faced repeated delays. The province wants to wait until it receives a Senate report on search and rescue first to avoid duplication of effort and cost. However, in Dec 2017, more than five years after Burton Winters died on the ice, that report was given a 7-month extension.



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