Family of boy who froze to death on sea ice say more resources needed for search and rescue in the North

·6 min read
Burton Winters froze to death in 2012. Now an inquiry into ground search and rescue hopes to change the policies and processes for the better for future searches.  (CBC  - image credit)
Burton Winters froze to death in 2012. Now an inquiry into ground search and rescue hopes to change the policies and processes for the better for future searches. (CBC - image credit)

The family of Burton Winters is calling for more search and rescue resources in the North and for Northern communities to be treated the same as southern Canadian regions.

During the final day for the ground search and rescue inquiry in Makkovik, before moving to Nain and other communities on the island, Winters' family stepped up to speak.

"What happened with Burton during his final days was a perfect storm," said his stepmother, Natalie Jacque, during the inquiry. "He had too many obstacles against his favour."

Winters, 14, left his grandmother's house on a snowmobile at about 1:30 p.m. on Jan. 29, 2012. A search started early that evening. His body was found on Feb. 1 on sea ice. His family and people in the community believe he may have been on a trail, missed a turn and headed accidentally to sea.

There was stormy weather, a crack in the ice pointing searchers to the wrong area, limited daylight, mechanical issues with search and rescue equipment and open water preventing him from getting onto land, she said.

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Winters walked 19 kilometres on the ice before freezing to death. His footprints show he was heading toward an unmanned lighthouse on Green Island in his final hours.

"I believe he had walked as far as he could, and we are all here today walking the rest for him," Jacque said.

Jacque said they are speaking now in honour of him because they hope it will make future searches less tragic.

Agencies can learn from what went wrong in Winters' case, fix emergency equipment quicker and all resources possible should be sent for a missing child, she said.

"Areas that are vast and remote should never be told that we're less important to provide assistance to. In not so many words, that's exactly what happened in Burton's tragedy," she said.

Winters' grandmother, Edna Winters, addressed the commission, saying she wanted to thank everyone who's supported them and the Commission for all it is doing.

"My grandson, he walked through a storm. He never survived the storm. But that storm continues until we set up a process that will enable people to have the support and the services they need," Edna said. "Burton didn't just affect us, he affected the world."

The inquiry into ground search and rescue heard evidence from the Department of National Defence, the province, local search and rescue and the family about what was done — and not done — after Winters was reported missing.

Family wants North to be treated equally to other regions: Lawyer

Speaking after the inquiry concluded in Makkovik, the family's lawyer said the family hopes for changes in the search and rescue system. Their lawyer pointed to the Department of National Defence as one example. During the hearing, the Department defended not sending a functional large helicopter to aid the search for Burton in case of other potential emergencies.

"They're hoping that some of the deficiencies in the system that have been identified will be changed so that this type of thing doesn't happen again," the family's lawyer Tom Williams told CBC.

Submitted by Winters family
Submitted by Winters family

The family doesn't believe the north is treated equally when it comes to search and rescue and wants to see more resources nearby, Williams said.

As well, there were a number of DND aircraft that were out for maintenance when Winters was missing.

"It's very troubling," Williams said. "This is a federal government that should have maintenance schedules in place and to find that when they're needed, they're not working. It's just not good enough."

RCMP officers say Winters' search stayed with them for years

During the inquiry, RCMP officers on the ground during the search were questioned about their decisions and asked if any training or anything provided to them ahead of time could have changed the outcome.

"You look at this search, it's a four day search on paper, but this has been 10 years for me now the search has been going on," Corp. Stephen Howlett said during the inquiry. "I can't think of anything, but I assure you, I asked that question to myself every day of my career."

Sgt. Kimball Vardy said he and Howlett poured their heart and soul into the community and the search and knew Winters personally. Winters had been at his house many times as he was friends with Vardy's stepdaughter, Vardy said.

"I'd give anything to go back. To know what we know today, I'd give anything to go back. But we can't," Vardy said.

"It's a struggle every day, and, you know, during the time of that search, it seemed like ... everything backfired. Whether it be weather maintenance on choppers or choppers breaking down, it seemed to us that everything worked against us," Howlett said. "We tried our best."

Speaking through their lawyer, the family said the officer's emotions were real and genuine at the inquiry and that the officers did as much as they could with the resources they had during Burton's search.

RCMP did provide clarity on a previous discrepancy. Vardy said he pushed his superior to call for air assistance that night. Sgt. Youden — who was not at the inquiry as he had retired — instead decided to wait until first light. Sgt. Daniel Williams is now in Youden's role and said it wouldn't have made a difference due to the weather.

The RCMP and ground search and rescue coordinator also thought for hours that Winters had gone through an open water crack in the ice. The crack measured about 60 feet wide and five kilometres long. The officers say it was only by chance they found the skidoo.

The RCMP Pilatus aircraft was delivering an underwater camera for them to check the crack for the skidoo. While it was in Makkovik they did a flyby to take a look. As an airplane, versus a helicopter, it had to take a long circle around. That's when Howlett saw the skidoo.

Howlett said they'll never know if they would have found the skidoo without calling for the camera and the Ontario plane delivering it.

Ride to skidoo location: less than an hour

The RCMP and search and rescue coordinator were also able to provide new details about timing. The path Winters had taken from town to his skidoo's location would have taken less than an hour, search and rescue coordinator Barry Andersen said.

A week after Winters' body was recovered, a group of community members retrieved the snowmobile. The people who retrieved the snowmobile told RCMP, it looked like he was heading back to shore with the tracks running toward the town.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting