On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.
National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.
Much of the first part of the book is devoted to a description of Vogel’s experience as a bush pilot and the combination of factors – weather, fatigue, and human error – that resulted in the accident. Only about one third of Shaben’s account focuses on the crash and the experience of the survivors prior to their rescue, and even this material is intercut with passages about the various individuals and groups mounting a search for them. The final third follows the survivors’ lives in the ensuing years. This section is anticlimactic, and the author struggles to retain the reader’s interest.
Shaben is not helped by a prose style that comes across as unconsidered. Clichés proliferate: Erik Vogel is described as being “in over his head”; later, he feels “the blood drain from his face.” RCMP constable Deschamps feels “out of his depth,” and Paul Archambault is portrayed as having “a spring in his step.” Too frequently, sound effects are used as shorthand where more detailed description would be preferable. (During the crash, for instance, the author refers to “a long, ear-splitting grrrrrrrr,” and elsewhere writes of “the deep whop whop whop” of a helicopter’s rotor blades.) Repetition abounds, and characters are all too often introduced by telling us how tall they are and how much they weigh.
All of this is unfortunate, because it is clear Shaben has an interesting and exciting story to tell. However, that story gets lost in the telling.