Terrible, Terrible Tragedy
As Hangar C burned to the ground last night at the Whitehorse airport, Al Kapty, the co-founder of Trans North Helicopters, trembled as he drove up Robert Service Way.
The pulsating glow rising from the last of the Whitehorse airport's Second World War-vintage hangars sent its frantic signal of burning destruction.
"I was at my house, and I got the call about 7:20 p.m." Kapty recalled this morning. "I went out of my house and jumped in my car, but before I jumped in, I could see the big red glow in the sky - and I knew we had a real major problem on our hands.... It's just a terrible, terrible tragedy.
"It's unbelievable," continued the veteran aviation executive. "I shook driving to the airport. I was in shock."
Whitehorse fire Chief Brian Monahan said this morning the cause of the fire that destroyed the early-1940s fir-framed structure is under investigation.
Katpy himself remains baffled by the cause.
The blaze came sooner than 5 1/2 years after Hangar B was destroyed by fire while its roof was being retarred.
There were no injuries last night, but 16 aircraft were destroyed, representing several million dollars in value.
Trans North Helicopters lost seven from its fleet of 13 choppers. Also destroyed were four fixed-wing aircraft being stored near the helicopters in Trans North's cold storage area at the south end of the hangar nearest the main terminal.
At the north end of the hangar, the place of business for Summit Air, five aircraft were destroyed.
Summit Air owner Jamie Tait was one of two people in the hangar when the fire broke out, though he and Trans North employee Bill Dean didn't notice the blaze until they heard an alarm they mistook for a security alert.
Dean went from the warm bay area in the north end of the hangar to check the alarm, then noticed signs of the fire in the cold storage area. He returned to alert Tait, and both he and Tait tried to use Summit Air's phone to call 911 but the phone was not working.
Dean got through on a nearby Trans North phone. The emergency operator had already received a call from a person having a drink at the Airport Chalet across the Alaska Highway, Tait said this morning.
"So, I mean, 911 knew about the fire in the hangar before we knew ourselves."
Tait said they tried to enter the cold storage area to exit through the offices. But by then, the choking smoke - even with the hangar's large doors that were permanently open - was thick, from the top of the high ceiling down to less than two metres off the floor.
A Fleet Canuck, owned by Bob Cameron of Trans North, was fully ablaze at that point, he said.
Both he and Dean made their way back out the north end of the building, and Tait stopped to quickly salvage what he could from Summit Air's office.
"I got two computer hard-drive discs and a set of ear phones," he said of all he was able to grab. "There were explosions going on when I was in my office so I was worried about the door coming down."
From the area of the parking lot, Tait watched the assets of his 13-year-old company burn to ashes.
Summit Air, he said, lost the two Cessna 207s it had in service, a 207 rebuilt that was scheduled for reassembly, one that was scheduled for rebuilding and a Cessna 172, which was also scheduled to be rebuilt.
The aircraft were insured, as were one employee's tools. He's not sure if the tools belonging to the director of mechanical repairs were insured, as he's in South America with one of the company's Sky Vans.
A mechanic's tools, he said, can easily be valued at $20,000, and Tait is checking today to see if his tools - valued at some $25,000 - were insured.
But it was not for Summit Air that he felt the most for, as he watched the flames begin to break through the roof, replacing the dullness of billowing smoke with a riveting red and orange.
"I really felt for Al," Tait said. "I just went over and gave him a big hug, and gave him my apologies.
"It is like, you know, you stand there watching your last 20 years burn up in front of you."
Cameron is operations manager for Trans North Helicopters, and 32-year employee of the company that began in 1967 as Trans North Turbo Air. He watched the blaze from his car in the parking lot next to the main terminal, along with his wife, Lois, and son.
Cameron and his family were returning from their son's hockey game when they saw the glow coming up over the escarpment.
Immediately, an uneasy feeling washed over Cameron. He knew there was but one building on the airport tarmac that would produce a burning glow huge enough to be detected through the overcast conditions.
As he approached the airport, Cameron knew the company's worst nightmare was before his eyes.
There were few words, as he and his family watched.
"There were a few tears."
Two airplanes parked in the cold storage area - the Fleet Canuck and a de Havilland Beaver - belonged to Cameron. The Beaver, he said, was insured but the Canuck wasn't.
Cameron said Trans North management staff assembled at Kapty's home after the fire to discuss what must be done now. He said the company's satellite bases around the Yukon are still operational, and there is scheduled winter work that needs to be completedTrans North has a full-time staff of 25, and peaks in the summer with some 30 employees.
Of the 15 to 20 staff in town and not south on holidays, the company expects all will be required to assist with relocation efforts and such.
Kapty, who lost his archives of the company he help form in Canada's centennial year, was today meeting insurance adjusters and inspectors arriving by plane from Vancouver.
Tait said he already has an office location for Summit Air and its eight employees, including himself. Finding new hangar accommodations, on the other hand, may prove difficult, said Tait, as it could easily cost in the millions, and would like require a joint-venture by a number of companies.
The fire chief said as a matter of routine, the fire department will be working with the RCMP to investigate the cause of the fire.
Experience in other cold-weather blazes suggests it could be a timely task, however, as the scene is this morning caked in ice from hours of suppression efforts.
Some 20 permanent and volunteer firefighters attended the scene, the first truck arriving at the scene four minutes after officials received the call at 7:19 p.m.
Firefighters remained on the scene for just under five hours.
But it was clear from the outset, said Monahan, that there was little they could do but ensure nearby properties were not threatened.
In the 1993 Hangar B blaze, the roof was down on the ground within 45 minutes, he pointed out. Hangar C, he added, had an open ceiling, unlike Hangar B, and would therefore allow fire to spread even faster, and more ferociously.
He said had the wind been coming out of the south, the adjacent Yukon Forest Service building immediately north of Hangar B could easily have been destroyed.
By Chuck Tobin
The Whitehorse Star, January 19, 1999