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Fort Smith gathers to remember plane crash victims and support surviving loved ones

Northwestern Air Lease crew members lit candles at Wednesday night's vigil for the victims of the Fort Smith plane crash and their families.  (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)
Northwestern Air Lease crew members lit candles at Wednesday night's vigil for the victims of the Fort Smith plane crash and their families. (Natalie Pressman/CBC - image credit)

Residents of Fort Smith, N.W.T., cried, hugged one another and laughed together as they gathered for a vigil Wednesday night to remember the six people lost in Tuesday's plane crash and offer support to their grieving loved ones and to the crash's sole survivor.

Pilots with Northwestern Air Lease, the local business that operated the aircraft, lit candles in honour of their two colleagues who died in the crash.

"I'm just lost for words [these] last couple days; I can't believe that our town was hit with this tragic event," said Salt River First Nation Chief Brad Laviolette, one of several speakers at the event.

"It was just so devastating. Everywhere I go, people are crying. We lost some pretty nice people here."

Praise for those who helped

Laviolette praised the first responders, the staff of the hospital, and the airline for their work in responding to the tragedy and expressed his condolences to the families of those lost and to the staff of the airline.

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday night at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Fort Smith for a candle vigil to remember those who died in the plane crash.
More than 100 people gathered Wednesday night at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Fort Smith for a candle vigil to remember those who died in the plane crash.

More than 100 people gathered Wednesday night at St. Joseph's Cathedral in Fort Smith for a candle vigil to remember those who died in the plane crash. (Natalie Pressman/CBC)

"All those people are all our friends; I just can't believe they're gone," Laviolette said. "We were just in shock all day. There's no words that explain. All of our emotions are running through us like crazy right now. You know, a lot of us are breaking down. We never have to deal with this type of thing ever — any of us."

Fort Smith Métis president Allan Heron told the crowd that the crash stirred up memories of Dec. 3, 1993, when a plane crashed near Tuktoyaktuk. His daughter and granddaughter died in that crash.

"You know, we'll never forget this," he said. "My deepest sympathy and sorrow goes out to these people that lost their family members."

Susan Enge told CBC that she organized the vigil to offer people a beautiful environment in which to find some peace and comfort with one another.
Susan Enge told CBC that she organized the vigil to offer people a beautiful environment in which to find some peace and comfort with one another.

Susan Enge told CBC that she organized the vigil to offer people a beautiful environment in which to find some peace and comfort with one another. (Natalie Pressman/CBC)

Around 100 people attended Wednesday's vigil, which lasted around 90 minutes and featured music, prayer, speeches from community leaders and an opportunity for community members to speak to the audience.

Community members pulling together

Vigil organizer Susan Enge told CBC that her goal was to offer people a beautiful environment in which to find some peace and comfort with one another.

"Suffering alone is not the best way to handle grief," she said.

Several people also talked of the community's resilience.

"You just see people pulling together, rallying together to make meals for the families, to just open their doors," said Rachel Paddock, who was at Wednesday's vigil.

"There's been so many people who have just physically opened their doors and said, 'Come drop in. Have a cup of tea. Have a time to chat and just be with one another."

Some in the community are preparing to welcome family members of the deceased from out of town by setting up cots in their homes and cooking food.

The community recreation centre, meanwhile, is open to allow people to gather, and there are support staff on hand.

Deputy mayor Dianna Korol told the audience at the vigil Wednesday night that the town has received messages of comfort and condolence from across Canada and from international agencies.

"The flags in town and in Yellowknife and in the Legislative Assembly have been lowered to half mast in respect for the loss of our people," she said.