It was perfect Arctic flying weather— clear and -20° C. From his window in the Canadian Forces C-130 Hercules, Master Seaman Douglas Montgomery, 33, could see the stars shining brilliantly in the polar night. On the flight deck, Capt. John Couch, 32, guided the aircraft into its final approach to the landing strip at Alert, the top-secret electroniclistening base on Ellesmere Island near the northernmost tip of Canada, just 500 miles from the North Pole. The seat-belt sign blinked on in the plane’s dimly lit cargo hold, and the five crew members and 13 passengers prepared for landing. Then something went terribly wrong. Couch misjudged the runway’s location, and the four-engine plane plowed into a snow-covered ridge about 20 km from Alert, killing five of those aboard. An object hurtling through the cabin fractured Montgomery’s skull, knocking him unconscious. Only rarely during the next 36 hours, as a frantic rescue operation was under way to save 13 survivors, did Montgomery regain enough consciousness to understand the ordeal that he was to face— one that has still not ended.
The actions of Couch, who worked heroically to save his passengers’ lives before he froze to death almost 30 hours after the crash on Oct. 30,1991, have become the stuff of Arctic lore. A TV movie, Ordeal in the Arctic, starring Richard Chamberlain as Couch, is now being shot just north of Edmonton at CFB Namao. And
a book about the crash, Death and Deliverance, by Ottawa writer Robert Mason Lee, published in July, quickly sold out in many stores across the country. But while the crash and rescue have become Canadian legend, another saga of courage and forbearance is still playing out: the survivors’ struggle to rebuild their lives.
Some survivors, including Pte. William Vance of Ottawa, who temporarily lost his eyesight in the crash, and Lieut. Michael Moore of CFB Edmonton, whose face was badly burned, have recovered. But others, including Montgomery, an Armed Forces radio communications specialist from Ottawa, were not as fortunate. As a result of the frostbite that he suffered, Toronto doctors have had to amputate his fingers, and the toes on his right foot. In seven operations since November, 1991, they grafted three toes from his left foot onto the remains of his left hand. Only now is his life beginning to return to a kind of normalcy. On Feb. 18, he returned to work at the communications command in Ottawa, and in August he married Elizabeth Horobin, 30, who has seen him through his difficult recovery. Now, he and his wife say that they hope to buy a house soon and start a family. In a mid-December interview, Montgomery told Maclean’s that one of his rare moments of lucidity at the crash site had prepared him for the worst. “I woke up at one point and saw that my fingers were frozen blocks of ice,” he recalled. “I knew right then
that I was going to lose my fingers.”
Only a few hours before Montgomery had that horrifying insight, Couch had scrambled free of the shattered Hercules. He and other survivors moved Montgomery and other injured passengers into some shelter in the plane’s severed tail section, where most of the survivors gathered as they waited 36 hours to be rescued. One of Montgomery’s few memories of that period is of standing up in a delirium and announcing that he was going to walk to Alert. “But I got to the opening in the tail section,” he added, “and then for some reason I turned around and came back.”
As a fierce blizzard engulfed the crash site and Montgomery lay unconscious, hanging onto life, Horobin had just moved into his condominium apartment in Ottawa. They had become close after meeting three months earlier, and she had driven him to the Ottawa bus « terminal to catch the fateful flight. As she now g recalls: “Before he left, he told me, ‘You better ïï get out of here, or I am going to change my 5 mind and decide to stay.’ ” Montgomery did leave, and the next day at 1:15 a.m., his sister telephoned Horobin to say that the Hercules had crashed. The following day, Montgomery called her from the U.S. airbase in Thule, Greenland, where some of the survivors had been taken. “An American padre held the phone,” said Montgomery, “and I told Elizabeth I had a little frostbite.”
But on Nov. 2, when Montgomery finally saw her husband-to-be at Ottawa’s National Defence Medical Centre, she knew that it was much worse than that. His face and ears were blackened by fire and there was a deep gash on his arm. Bandages covered his hands and feet. For the next 18 days, surgeons studied the bones of Montgomery’s useless hands and feet. Still, when the military told him that his job was safe, Montgomery said that he summoned up the courage to ask Horobin to marry him. She accepted his proposal.
But her anguish grew during the ensuing weeks. On Nov. 21, Montgomery was transferred to The Toronto Hospital, where plastic surgeon Dr. Ralph Manktelow took over. Said Montgomery: “Once they got in there and saw what was damaged, they amputated.” He lost half the palm, the fingers and thumb as far as the first knuckle of his left hand, all the fingers on his right hand and all the toes on his right foot. Then on June 22, a team of surgeons attached two toes from his left foot to his left hand. And on Sept. 30, they grafted his big toe onto the stump of his left thumb.
Montgomery now has a prosthetic hook on his right hand and his left hand is about 30-percent functional. “I’m slower,” he acknowledges, “but with one hook and a partial hand I can do anything I could before.” Says Horobin, now Elizabeth Montgomery: “My husband did not let the physical changes take away his dignity. He is a hero in my eyes.” For Montgomery and some others among the crash survivors, the fight to resume their lives has been at least as testing as their battle to survive in the Arctic cold.
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