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Exclusive: Guide describes risky rescue of BC heli-ski crash survivors

“Guys, this is what we are trained to do,” Ryan Merrill told a team that was rescuing survivors from a remote, hard-to-reach helicopter crash

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Racing against the setting sun, Ryan Merrill, three other ski guides and their helicopter pilot peered through thick clouds, desperately trying to find the wreckage of a heli-skiing chopper that had crashed with seven people on board.

When they finally spotted the accident scene in the remote Skeena Mountains about 50 kms northwest of Terrace, there wasn’t enough room for them to land, so they touched down about 300 metres above.

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The guides then had to determine how to get all their first-aid gear — a trauma pack with oxygen, a defibrillator, a vacuum-mattress spine board — down the rugged terrain.

It was a daunting task for the four rescuers, who didn’t know what they would find when they got to the crash site of the helicopter, which had been carrying the pilot, a Northern Escape Heli-Skiing guide, and five European tourists.

“I turned and looked at them and I went, ‘Guys, this is what we’re trained to do. Let’s go to work,’” Merrill, Northern Escape’s director of guiding operations, recalled in an exclusive interview.

File photo: A Northern Escape Heli-Skiing helicopter.
File photo: A Northern Escape Heli-Skiing helicopter. Photo by AL CHAREST /Al Charest/Postmedia

Four people were alive with multiple, traumatic injuries. The rescuers stabilized them as best they could so they could be flown out before sunset stranded them on the remote mountainside.

“We are in a total battle against the time, among other things. So time was of the essence, to efficiently package everybody as best we could and then move them as fast as possible,” said Merrill, still reeling with emotion a week later.

The rescuers that day were unable to evacuate three people who died in the crash — Italians Heiner Junior (Heinzl) Oberrauch, 29, Andreas Widman, 35, as well as pilot Mark McGowan, who was remembered Monday as a “phenomenal pilot and a much-loved part of the Skyline Helicopters team.”

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It was a Skyline Helicopters Augusta Westland A119 Koala, chartered by Northern Escape, that crashed on Monday, Jan. 22.

That was the first day of the tourists’ outdoor adventure. They had spent Sunday night in Northern Escape’s luxury fly in/fly out Mountain Lodge, reserved for “elite package guests” with a hearth fireplace, gourmet meals and an outdoor hot tub.

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Heiner Junior “Heinzl” Oberrauch Photo by SPORTLER FACEBOOK /sun

First thing Monday, they attended several safety briefings. The company’s guides also had their daily 6:30 a.m. call, when they assess the weather and the avalanche hazards.

They determined it was a good day to play in the backcountry.

The skilled group of Italian skiers completed about seven runs in a large alpine area. They were heading back to a landing pad on a ridge dubbed “Wolverine” when, for reasons that are still unclear, the chopper crashed.

Merrill was leading a cat-skiing expedition about 10 kms away when the distress call came over the company’s radio channel at about 2:45 p.m.

One of the passengers on the downed chopper pleaded for help.

“I immediately got on the radio and asked who this person was, and where they were,” Merrill said. “All they could really indicate at that point was that there had been a helicopter crash and that they needed assistance.”

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He said there were other people with him.

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Northern Escape pilot Mark McGowan Photo by Courtesy of Northern Escape /sun

Merrill and another Northern Escape employee assured him help was coming.

“Just the sound of our voices, knowing that we were on our way, I hope was some support for him, to make him feel more comfortable,” said Merrill, a 15-year ski guide.

He radioed the three helicopters flying for Northern Escape that day. One did not respond.

So he instructed the other two choppers to take their passengers back to a lodge, load up on rescue supplies and fuel, and head to the accident scene.

The first chopper, which was carrying one guide, picked up Merrill and two other guides from their cat-skiing location.

They battled through clouds to spot the wreckage. The injured survivor below indicated he could hear the chopper blades.

Carrying an assortment of medical equipment and backpacks filled with first-aid and survival gear, the rescuers skied the 300 metres downhill before having to sidestep part way back up the ridge to reach the accident site.

“We started moving through the patients as we went in, determining the extent of their injuries and what we could do for them, and prioritizing who was going to basically get moved out of the mountains first,” Merrill said.

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Undated handout photo of the remote Skeena Mountains.
Undated handout photo of the remote Skeena Mountains. Photo by Aaron Whitfield, Red Bike Media /sun

Other ski guides used a vacuum-mattress to create a spine board and a trauma pack with oxygen supplies to get the most seriously injured passenger ready to be flown out.

Merrill provided first-aid to the less-injured passengers, covering them with sleeping bags and heat blankets. “Some were speaking to me, so I just basically talked to them, looked them in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t move your head.’ I did a quick checkover down the body just to see what their injuries were, and then kept moving on.”

Merrill radioed a neighbouring heli-ski company, White Wilderness. They sent a chopper with more rescue gear, and took the first patient to a waiting ambulance just off Highway 113.

The rescuers had arrived at the wreckage around 3:30 p.m., and one of Merrill’s biggest fears was not getting the survivors out before nightfall.

The second-most injured person was in a lot of agony, so the guides gave him some pain relief. Other helicopters brought additional supplies, including various spine boards.

A parade of Northern Escape and White Wilderness helicopters shuttled the patients to the staging area. Merrill ensured several guides went on each flight to keep reducing the number of people left at the crash scene.

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After the last patient was flown out, Merrill and four others remained. They had some gear to spend the night if it became too dark, and Merrill was also torn about leaving behind the three bodies.

But when a helicopter came for them, they decided it was best to get to safety.

“That’s one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make. So it was difficult, very difficult. But, again, with the impending darkness, we had to leave. We ended up getting our helicopter back to the lodge and at home with one minute of legal daylight left.”

It was 5:24 p.m.

“Everybody pulled off a miracle, and that’s every single person who was part of this,” said Merrill.

The rescue mission was “nothing short of heroic,” Northern Escape president John Forrest said in a statement to Postmedia. He also praised off-mountain staff for liaising with emergency services and deploying rescue equipment.

Tragically, one of the rescued passengers, Northern Escape guide Lewis Ainsworth, has since died of his injuries.

Lewis Ainsworth is seen in this undated handout photo provided by his family. Ainsworth, the president of the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association, has died of his injuries after a Jan. 22, 2024, helicopter crash near Terrace, B.C.
Lewis Ainsworth is seen in this undated handout photo provided by his family. Photo by HO /The Canadian Press

“Lewis was in his second year as a guide with us here at Northern Escape and was clearly a rising star in the industry. He was friendly, helpful, passionate and amazingly talented,” said Forrest.

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Italian media have identified the other three rescued people as Oberrauch’s older brother Jakob Oberrauch, 34, the CEO of family sporting-goods business Sportler; Johannes Peer, 34, also a Sportler executive; and 35-year-old Emilio Zierock. Italian media also reported that Jakob Oberrauch was the person who radioed for help from the crash scene.

“This has been a profoundly difficult week for everyone involved, none more so than the families, as we all mourn the terrible losses,” Forrest said.

The cause of the accident remains under investigation.

As Northern Escape re-opens its heli-skiing operations, Forrest insists the industry is safe and the workers are well trained.

“A helicopter accident like this is extremely rare and, unfortunately, our team are now some of the only people in the world who have first-hand knowledge of an incident of this nature.”

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