Death by incompetence: a woeful tale of ineptitude

By Chris Pedersen

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police always get their person, but only when they go for them. On Feb. 15, at Kicking Horse Ski Resort in Golden, British Columbia two skiers from Montreal went out of bounds and got lost, becoming trapped in the backcountry. Giles Blackburn spent nine days trapped in the wilderness before he was rescued and his wife, Marie-Josee Fortin, died Feb. 22, two days before search and rescue were called out. The couple carved SOS into the snow in hopes a helicopter would fly over, see the symbol and initiate a rescue. This should have worked, as two days into the ordeal a heli-ski pilot spotted the distress symbols, contacted the resort, who in turn contacted Golden and District search and rescue. Despite these steps, the RCMP were never contacted, even though the Search and Rescue team recommended they be called. Golden and District Search and Rescue is not allowed to conduct a search until they receive permission from the RCMP ­– a directive created a month prior to the incident. In a meeting, Golden Search and Rescue were informed that it would require a RCMP mandate to initiate any form of search and rescue. On the 10th day, the police finally allowed search and rescue to pull Blackburn from the mountain. This was only after a pilot saw him standing in the snow waving his hands.

Another Purcell pilot saw SOS symbols days later and contacted the RCMP, who in turn contacted the resort. Both groups decided that a search was not necessary, despite the evidence. The police said that since no missing person report had been filed and the resort had no evidence of the couple being missing, inaction was the best action. The police made an absolutely appalling mistake and have admitted it in numerous newspapers. To not order a rescue when they have evidence that people are in danger shows a clear lack of understanding. We rely on this organization to be responsible for the well-being of the Canadian populace and in this regard they failed.

SOS is internationally known as a distress symbol. Somebody should tell the RCMP it means action should be taken. A symbol such as this would not be carved into the snow unless people were in serious danger. That the RCMP and search and rescue cannot realize this is unforgivable. Most people with common sense, even if they are not a skier or have rescue training, recognize the distress symbol and realize something should be done. The police screwed up and, in doing so, allowed someone to die.

The regulations concerning rescues also need to be taken into account. The rule that a rescue cannot be initiated without consent from the police delays any action that can be taken. B.C. needs to allow its search and rescue organizations, which are trained in all aspects concerning mountain rescue, to decide when someone is in trouble. This would take out one link, allowing information to go directly to the people that can respond. Perhaps the province should consider spending the $50 million it would take to create a permanent, non-volunteer based organization that has the authority to respond without permission from the police.

If it takes the visual recognition of a body to initiate any form of help then search and rescue organizations and the RCMP in British Columbia are not rescuing, they are recovering. In this incident they did not rescue anybody, they recovered two bodies and were lucky one was alive.