Into the Rock

The thousands of islands that guard the central coast in British Columbia, Canada, are rock-bound, home to the hardiest of organisms – kelp, starfish and barnacles. No roads serve the coast, only a ferry that makes a 22-hour run from Vancouver Island to the port city of Prince Rupert, in the northern part of the province on the mainland. First Nations communities like Bella Bella and Klemtu rely on the ferry and small airports for connections to the outside world. One of the biggest industries is tourism: in the summer, anglers flock to lodges along the coast to catch salmon and halibut.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 11, 2014, Marvin was preparing to land a float plane at a wilderness lodge in St. John Harbour, Athlone Island, 35km from Bella Bella when the crash happened. An experienced pilot, he had logged 12,500 float plane hours over a 29-year career. Since selling his own air charter service in 2009, he flew occasionally for his friend Don McNeice, who owned the aircraft, using it to service remote sport-fishing lodges throughout coastal British Columbia.

Inside the cramped, metal-clad cockpit sat Don and his mechanic Richard Pick. Marvin had just retrieved both men from a nearby isolated coastal community. Waiting for them at St. John Harbour was Gordon McLeod, Don’s electrician.

The plane Marvin was flying was built in 1953; its single radial engine whirred noisily as it approached the bay. The inside passage was clear, but he wasn’t surprised to see a fog bank hanging offshore. Fog is common on the coast, appearing suddenly, then ebbing and flowing in a narrow band above the sea. Marvin circled three times to appraise the conditions. He knew the crew was eager to get home to Haida Gwaii (formerly The Queen Charlotte Islands) for the weekend – and that the fog could very well linger for days. The green and white Beaver touched down in a spray of salt water and taxied to a floating barge where Gordon McLeod stood waiting.

Marvin worried over the time it took to get Gordon’s tools and supplies loaded. Finally, with the three men in the plane, Marvin reviewed his plan before throttling the engine for takeoff: he would skim the water, searching for a break in the fog to ascend to the clear skies above. If it didn’t work, he would land and taxi back before it was too thick – a strategy he’d employed countless times before in other locations.

Sure enough, the fog was impenetrable. So, according to plan, Marvin dropped the wing flaps to set up for a landing. Just then, he spotted a sport-fishing vessel on the water, right where he anticipated coming down. He had forgotten that these waters draw anglers, who boat to the area from several nearby lodges. His only option was to turn the plane towards shore, which he hoped to follow to a gap in the fog.

Within seconds, Marvin realised he was flying into a dead end. Land was coming up fast, and the plane, labouring under a full-capacity load, couldn’t climb above the trees.

Skipper David Bell was piloting the 14m Pacific Lure, along with a crew member and six guests. They were trolling for salmon just off Cheney Point, north of St. John Harbour. From the helm, two storeys above the water, David watched a float plane materialise out of the fog on his starboard side, at almost eye level, coming straight at them.

Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the Beaver swooped towards the shore and into the fog. David glanced at his navigational instruments. There was no way it would clear that cove, he thought.

He steered the boat in the direction of the inlet. Out of the fog, he could see a flaming ball of wreckage. Because of the shoals near the shore and the size of his vessel, David was unable to do much more than issue a mayday relay – a broadcast to all mariners to lend assistance. He recorded the latitude and longitude coordinates and keyed the boat’s VHF marine radio. He ended his call with, “I don’t think there are any survivors.”

Back on the docks of the lodge in St. John Harbour, Richard Mellis’s gut sank when he heard Bell’s mayday crackle over the VHF. Richard, who works for Don McNeice as a mechanic, was supposed to have been aboard that float plane with his colleagues, but instead had decided to stay behind to finish last-minute jobs.

He and a fishing guide hopped in an aluminium boat and raced in the direction of the crash, which he suspected was about 2km away. Richard steeled himself for a grisly scene.

Sensing Marvin’s desperate turn, Richard Pick instinctively tucked his head between his knees and braced. The plane ploughed into the rock shelf, windows shattered, and flames blasted through the cabin. Richard immediately elbowed open the rear door of the crumpled, burning aircraft and escaped.

After appraising his body for injuries and discovering only a tender spot on the top of his head, he re-entered the plane through the back door. Over the unnerving whoosh of combusting fuel, he heard Gordon moan, barely conscious after slamming his head against the metal backside of the pilot’s seat. Richard lunged in, released Gordon’s seat belt and hauled him out. Gordon’s head was bleeding profusely. Richard grabbed his arm and guided him towards a pile of rocks a few metres away, then bandaged the wound with his shirt.

Less than a minute after impact, Don regained consciousness. He glanced to his left and saw Marvin slumped down in the seat, unconscious, pinned by the controls and his seat belt. Flames raged around his legs and feet. As he attempted to free Marvin’s motionless frame, his own pants caught fire. He exited and hurried to a tidal pool to douse the flames.

But Don, whose knees and shin were badly scorched, knew they couldn’t leave Marvin in the plane. They had to go back in and get him. He climbed in the co-pilot’s door and released Marvin’s seat belt. From the back seat, Richard grabbed onto Marvin’s belt. Together, the men managed to extract his limp body from the fuselage.

Marvin’s jaw was mangled, his arms and face nearly charred. His lower body suffered the worst: his work pants and boots had been eaten away by flames, his skin scalded to the point that tendons were visible in his feet and legs. Marvin’s circulatory system was struggling to compensate for the fluid loss from third-degree burns covering nearly a third of his body. He lay practically naked on the rocks. Without medical intervention, it wouldn’t be long before his body succumbed to the trauma.

Don removed his shirt and wrapped it around Marvin’s head. It was all he could do to stop the bleeding. Nearby, Gordon was also wavering in and out of consciousness, with Richard’s shirt sopping with blood that still flowed from his head. “Talk to me, Gord!” Don yelled at him, to keep him awake.

Gripped by adrenaline, he ignored the oozing burns on his own limbs. Soon, he would feel the pain of his injuries. Only Richard, his face reddened from the heat, was unharmed. But as the plane blazed behind them, the men had no emergency gear – and no means of summoning help.

News of the crash travelled fast across the marine airways. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Coast Guard – both with units at Bella Bella for a First Nations weekend celebration – deployed high-speed inflatable boats and large patrol vessels stocked with medical equipment to the crash scene. A rescue helicopter was dispatched from Comox, only to be thwarted by the fog.

Meanwhile, a party of seven doctors on their annual fishing trip heard the mayday and reeled in their lines. Their guides boated them to the scene, 30 minutes away.

Richard Mellis was the first responder, arriving within 15 minutes of the crash. There were four people – away from the wreckage – two were hunched over as if they were beaten up, two were sitting. While the guide manoeuvred the boat close to shore, Richard leaped onto the slimy rocks, his arms full of survival suits he had pulled from the fishing boat. He knew everyone would be in shock and needed to be made as warm as possible. A second lodge boat arrived from St. John Harbour a few minutes later, and Richard and two other men focused on moving Marvin first, whose burns were severe. Three of the men locked arms and made a human stretcher to get him off the rocks. Next they assisted Richard Pick and Don McNeice onto one boat and Gordon McLeod onto another.

With the victims on board, the vessels motored towards Bella Bella, knowing from transmissions on the radio that they would soon intercept the better-equipped marine units. Marvin and Gordon were transferred to a Coast Guard rescue vessel, and Don and Richard were moved to the RCMP patrol vessel. By the time the doctors arrived, split up and attended to the injured, Coast Guard first aiders had dressed Marvin’s burns and Gordon’s head injury.

“A lot of things happened in their favour – the fishing charter, the doctors, the fact that Bella Bella had extra resources that weekend,” says Constable Dale Judd, who arrived at the scene in an RCMP inflatable. “The crash happened a long way from nowhere. You look at the map and realise just how far you are from the Vancouver hospital.”

Marvin Boyd finally returned home to Haida Gwaii from Vancouver’s G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in September 2014; he expects to recover “100 per cent” and fly again. Don McNeice received skin grafts on his left leg. His treatment kept him on bed rest for most of the summer, changing his approach to business. “I was a workaholic,” he admits. “But when I was recovering, I couldn’t do anything except a little phone and email. I wasn’t there, and everything still ran fine.” With nothing more than singed hair, Richard Pick went right back to work.

Gordon McLeod, who recovered from a severe concussion at home, is grateful for Marvin Boyd’s quick response at the controls. “If he hadn’t swerved, I don’t think I’d be talking to you today,” he insists. For his part, the crash reminded Marvin of a prediction he had made to his wife early in his flying career. “I had told her, ‘If I ever get in a jam, it’s going to be with the fog,’” he says. “But this was worse than a close call. To survive, it was a miracle.”

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