“That others may live”: SAR technician recounts rescue of man missing in Nunavut

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Article / February 24, 2017

By: Ashley Black, Canadian Joint Operations Command

Imagine this: a man has been missing for four days in rural Nunavut, facing its harsh winter alone. For the next 17 hours, it is your responsibility to locate, stabilize and evacuate him. It is a tough job, and it is one to which Sergeant Dennis Van Sickle has dedicated his career in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Sergeant Van Sickle is a Search and Rescue (SAR) technician on board the CC-130 H Hercules and CH-146 Griffon aircraft based at 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron from 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. When conducting missions, Sergeant Van Sickle is the team leader of the SAR technicians who are responsible for the primary care of the missing person.

At around two in the morning on Monday, November 21, 2016, Sergeant Van Sickle and the team were tasked with a SAR mission involving a man who had been missing since Friday, November 18th. The RCMP, Canadian Rangers and local citizens had been conducting a ground search for the man near Baker Lake, Nunavut all weekend with no sighting, and needed additional help from the CAF.

For the next 17 hours, Sergeant Van Sickle and the team onboard a CC-130 H Hercules searched likely areas and followed search patterns directed by the regional control centre. The RCMP and Canadian Rangers continued to search on the ground in a forested area.

The search lasted all day due to the fact that from the sky, it was difficult to definitively identify objects on the ground. “Above the tree line, we saw a ton of snow and some rocks and chunks of ice that kind of pop up. From the search altitude, they kind of looked like black spots,” explained Sergeant Van Sickle. “There was a high level of similarity between the search object and what the ground conditions looked like, and there was snow blowing everywhere due to some high winds during the search. So it was difficult to pick out what was what.”

By evening, there was still no sign of the missing person. The team onboard the Hercules had approximately five minutes left in their final search pattern before they’d be required to land and take mandatory crew rest.

Then, the ground team contacted the Hercules. They had found footprints and wanted the Hercules team to come investigate.

The Hercules finished the last five minutes of its search pattern and then headed towards the area where the RCMP found footprints. By that time, the ground team had found the missing person. The Hercules followed as the ground team headed towards a medical cabin nearby. Once they arrived, the Hercules dropped a radio down to the ground team to determine if medical help was needed from Sergeant Van Sickle’s team.

“They called back to us on the radio that he was indeed alive and they found him walking,” said Sergeant Van Sickle.

The ground team requested medical attention for the patient so the Hercules circled around the cabin while Sergeant Van Sickle and his fellow SAR technician, Master Corporal Matthew Zukowski, parachuted down. Sergeant Van Sickle focused on creating an evacuation plan for the patient, while Master Corporal Zukowski did a medical assessment of the patient before moving him to a nearby medical station staffed by a professional medical team.

A crowd of concerned citizens greeted the patient and the SAR team at the medical station. While Sergeant Van Sickle had done handoffs before, this was the first time he witnessed a whole community line up to welcome the patient home. “That was pretty incredible,” he remarked.

As for the overall success of the mission, Sergeant Van Sickle credits the ground team for their hard work and for finding the missing person’s footprints. “The kudos on this one I think goes to the local ground SAR team. They were pounding the ground for four days looking for this man. In reality, they are the ones that spotted the footprints and then tracked him down from there. Good on them,” he said.

17-hour work days are not easy, and missions are not always successful. But Sergeant Van Sickle has a simple reason for why he and other SAR technicians are so dedicated to their jobs. He says that SAR technicians have the unique experience of directly impacting the lives of Canadians.

“We’re the ones jumping in to help somebody when they’re having the worst day of their life, he said. “I think that’s likely why SAR technicians so proudly embody the trade motto: that others may live.”

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