Two paramedics who were on board a helicopter that crashed Friday in northern Ontario died doing the work they were called to do — helping others in need, family and friends said Friday.
Chris Snowball, 38, had his sights set on a career as a medical aid from the time he was a teen, said his father John.
But his 19-year career came to a tragic end just after midnight Friday when the Ornge air ambulance helicopter he was flying in crashed in a remote area, killing three other colleagues.
Fellow paramedic Dustin Dagenais of Moose Factory, Ont., as well as pilots Capt. Don Filliter of Skead, Ont., and First Officer Jacques Dupuy of Otterburn-Park, Que. all died while on their way to pick up a patient in the fly-in First Nations community of Attawapiskat.
John Snowball said the family is struggling to come to terms with the loss, which is dredging up unfamiliar emotions.
“His brother, I’ve never seen him cry in my life, even when he got a spanking as a kid,” Snowball said from his son’s home in Burlington, Ont. “He cried today.”
Chris had studied to become a paramedic immediately after graduating high school, he said. His son spent more than a decade working near Cape Breton, N.S., before returning to Ontario for the sake of his family.
He said his son had long aspired to work for Ornge despite the scandal that’s engulfed the organization over a criminal probe of financial irregularities.
Chris landed a series of three-month contracts, but was recently delighted to learn he would be beginning a year-long post in Thunder Bay, Ont., John Snowball said. That new assignment was set to begin within a week.
Being a paramedic seemed a natural choice for a man who always felt compelled to help others, he said.
“He was the kind of guy that, if he saw someone on the side of the road, would stop and identify himself as a paramedic. He just always wanted to help out,” John Snowball said. “In my eyes, he’s a hero.”
Chris Snowball, who was also a volunteer firefighter, is survived by his wife and three children.
Dagenais, 34, was also married with a 10-month-old daughter. His widow, Josee Cousineau, is struggling with the loss, said Ryan Gould, a friend and co-worker at Ornge.
Dagenais joined Ontario’s air ambulance service two years ago after working for the James Bay Ambulance Services, racing around a half-dozen coastal communities to help the sick and injured, said Gould.
The former Ontario Hockey League player’s stint with the land ambulance service included time at its base in Attawapiskat, he said from the family home in Moose Factory.
“He would go above and beyond to make anybody more comfortable or feel more at ease,” Gould said.
“What made him good? Just his whole way. One of those guys that everybody wants to be around, makes everybody feel good.”
The Transportation Safety Board is investigating what brought down the helicopter, with the assistance of the Ontario Provincial Police.
A sombre Rob Giguere, Ornge’s chief operating officer, said the investigation could take a “lengthy period of time,” but Ornge will help as much as it can.
“We don’t have any indication at this point at what caused the accident,” he said.
The patient in Attawapiskat will be transported by plane, but the weather has delayed its arrival, Giguere said.
Ornge has grounded all five remaining Sikorsky S76 helicopters in its fleet “out of an abundance of caution,” Ornge CEO Andrew McCallum said later in the day. They operated in Kenora and Thunder Bay.
Operations will continue with its 10 PC-12 airplanes, 10 AW-139 helicopters and standing agreement carriers, he added.
The 33-year-old S76 helicopter crashed around 12:11 a.m., about 0.7 nautical miles away from the Moosonee airport. The terrain was relatively flat and there was good visibility despite light rain, Ornge said.
Both pilots were veteran fliers, officials said. Filliter, 54, was a respected pilot with more than 20 years of flying experience and an aircraft maintenance engineer, McCallum said.
Filliter, who joined Ornge in March, is survived by his wife and two children, he said.
Dupuy, who joined Ornge last August, was a bush pilot in Quebec and had decades of experience flying all over the world, McCallum said. The 43-year-old leaves behind a wife and two children.
Everyone at Ornge is shocked and saddened by their deaths, he said.
“Their lives were lost serving the public and we owe deep debt of gratitude,” McCallum said.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she was “devastated” by the deaths, but that their service will be honoured and remembered.
“You know there really are few words to express how sad we all are that this has happened,” she said in Sarnia, Ont.
Greg Rickford, Conservative MP for Kenora, Ont., made a tearful statement in the House of Commons about the Ornge crash.
“I ask all members to join me in paying tribute to this tragic loss of these four lives and those who take such particular risks to ensure the health and safety of all Canadians across this immense country,” said Rickford, who worked as a nurse and a lawyer in First Nations communities in northwest Ontario.
“We share their loss, our hearts are with the family (and) friends.”
— With files from Will Campbell.