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Coroner investigating fatal plane crash near Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Emergency vehicles with flashing lights wait outside the Fort Smith airport Tuesday morning. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)
Emergency vehicles with flashing lights wait outside the Fort Smith airport Tuesday morning. (Carla Ulrich/CBC - image credit)

A Northwestern Air plane that crashed Tuesday near Fort Smith, N.W.T. killing multiple people was carrying workers to Rio Tinto's Diavik diamond mine.

The N.W.T. coroner's office has confirmed there were fatalities, though it's not yet known how many people died. It also isn't known how many people were on board the British Aerospace Jetstream aircraft when it crashed. The aircraft can seat up to 19 people.

Fort Smith, a town of about 2,250, is located about 740 kilometres south of Yellowknife, just north of the Alberta border.

In a statement Tuesday night, Rio Tinto said it is working with authorities and has offered to help however it can with efforts to find out what happened.

"As a company, we are absolutely devastated by this news and offering our full support to our people and the community who are grieving today," said Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm.

The Diavik Diamond Mine is about 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

Coroner's team investigating

Reached Tuesday night, N.W.T. chief coroner Garth Eggenberger said he couldn't confirm whether there were any survivors.

"At this time, we are only saying that we have fatalities ... we don't know how many," Eggenberger said.

He said more information would come Wednesday.

The crash site, which is currently secured by RCMP, is located about 500 metres from the end of the Fort Smith Regional Airport's runway, Eggenberger said.

Fort Smith's health centre initiated a protocol to respond to mass casualties Tuesday morning, soon after the Northwestern Air plane went down.

In a news release just after 2 p.m. MT, the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority said that protocol will stay in place "until official direction is received that the incident response has concluded."

It said the health centre is still open for emergencies, but regular appointments may be rescheduled to free up resources to respond to the crash.

"NTHSSA is unable to release any details about the incident or any impacted individuals at this time due to patient confidentiality," the health authority wrote.

'Very devastating,' says deputy mayor

Fort Smith deputy mayor Dianna Korol says the community is reeling from the tragedy.

"The community is in shock, we're a very close-knit community," she said.

Korol spoke to CBC News before heading to the community's Anglican church, which was hosting a special prayer service late Tuesday afternoon.

"Everybody has a little piece — or somebody that they know. It's very devastating. The families are grieving and we just hope that everybody has the strength to carry on and get through this tragedy."

N.W.T. Premier R.J. Simpson addressed the family and friends of those who died in a statement Tuesday afternoon, offering his condolences.

"The impact of this incident is felt across the territory," he wrote. "The people we lost were not just passengers on a flight; they were neighbours, colleagues, friends and loved ones. Their stories and contributions to our communities will not be forgotten."

He encouraged those impacted by the news to reach out for help.

"To those affected by this tragedy: as you navigate this time of grief and sorrow, remember that you have the thoughts and prayers of residents across the N.W.T.," he wrote.

"We stand with you, we grieve with you, and we share the pain of your loss."

The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority issued a public notice about mental health and wellness supports for those who need them.

In Fort Smith, people can call the Community Counselling Program on weekdays between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 867-872-6310.

Outside of regular hours, mental health staff are available on-call by calling the Fort Smith Emergency Department at 867-872-6200.

The health authority said additional counselling staff are on their way to the community.

Transportation board investigating

Earlier Tuesday afternoon, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) announced it was deploying a team of investigators to investigate the crash.

The TSB said it was gathering information and assessing the incident.

The RCMP, the Canadian Rangers and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) all responded to a report of lost contact with an aircraft outside of Fort Smith Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has confirmed.

The air force dispatched a CC 138 Twin Otter from 440 Squadron in Yellowknife and a CC 130J Hercules out of 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Trenton to assist with search and rescue, said David Lavallee, a public affairs officer with the RCAF in Winnipeg.

It also dispatched a CC 130H from 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron in Winnipeg, which had been in Calgary for training.

Two parachuters seen dropping from a Hercules aircraft over Fort Smith, N.W.T., as emergency crews respond to what the town is calling an "aviation incident."
Two parachuters seen dropping from a Hercules aircraft over Fort Smith, N.W.T., as emergency crews respond to what the town is calling an "aviation incident."

Two parachuters seen dropping from a Hercules aircraft over Fort Smith, N.W.T., as emergency crews respond to what the town is calling an "aviation incident." (Carla Ulrich/CBC)

RCMP and Canadian Rangers conducted a ground search, Lavallee said.

The Rangers located the missing aircraft west of Fort Smith near Slave River. Search and rescue technicians equipped with survival and medical equipment then parachuted to the scene.

A spokesperson for the RCMP confirmed Tuesday afternoon that its officers were providing assistance to Transport Canada and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre.

In a post to the Town of Fort Smith's official Facebook page at around 9:40 a.m. MT, officials notified residents of "an aviation incident," that had occurred that morning.

The town asked residents to stay away from the area "to allow emergency response experts the ability to respond accordingly."

Fire trucks, police cars and ambulances could all be seen at the airport on Tuesday morning, with lights flashing, and people were not allowed to enter the airport.