Steven Hartwell and the Argus Connection

Svjetlana Mlinarevic
Northern News Services
Published Friday, December 7, 2012


It was Nov. 8, 1972 when Gateway Aviation pilot Martin Hartwell was tasked with transporting passengers Neemee Nulliayok, nurse Judy Hill and fourteen-year-old David Pisurayak Kootook from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife for medical care.

Martin Hartwell during a press conference in 1972. Hartwell ultimately was the only survivor of a plane crash on Nov. 8, 1972. He was rescued after 31 days in the bush. His companion at the crash site, David Kootook, died a week before Hartwell was rescued by the Canadian military on Dec. 9, 1972. - NNSL file photo

He had just dropped of a crew of prospectors and now his silver Beechcraft 18 aircraft was back rattling through the stormy evening sky on a mercy flight.

Nulliayok was nearing the end of a difficult pregnancy while Kootook suffered from appendicitis. Nurse Hill had accompanied the pair from their home community of Taloyoak.

Things were not looking good, and Hartwell began to worry after failing to pick up the Contwoyto beacon halfway to Yellowknife.

Trying to find his way in the 17 mph winds and cloudy skies proved treacherous and Hartwell needed to find his way. A sudden break in the clouds gave him momentary relief as he picked up the beacon signals from Fort Reliance and Deline. But Hartwell's luck changed for the worse when clouds began to amass once again around the little plane and the wind began to pick up speed.

As ice crystals formed over the plane's exterior, Hartwell lowered the plane's position to 2,000 feet in order to get better radio reception. Just as he turned on his overhead light to read a map, the plane's right wing clipped a tree on a hill, sending the aircraft cartwheeling into the bush.

Hartwell had been knocked unconscious but soon awoke to the horror surrounding him as the cold air rushed into the broken cabin of his plane.

On his lap was Hill's body, now sticking halfway through the pilot's side window. Hartwell found Kootook was still alive, as was Nulliayok, who was eight months pregnant. But Nulliayok would not survive the night. Hartwell's left knee and ankles were broken. Little did he know the lonely hill on which he crashed would be his home for 31 days. Or what it would take for him to survive.

"It's quite a large hill with a very broad base," said prospector and Northern history buff Walt Humphries, who was in Yellowknife at the time of the crash.

"So, I can see how he flew into it. It's not like all of the sudden there's a hill in front of you. This thing just gradually rises up from a distance, so in poor conditions he just didn't see it."

For the next 16 days, Kootook and Hartwell survived on rations, lichen and sugar pills. Kootook built a lean-to, gathered firewood, and tried several times to go fishing at a nearby lake but had to turn back each time after going part way.

"The crash site certainly is a heck of a long way from the lake," said Humphries, who visited the site a few years after the crash. "In the wintertime, to try and walk from there down to the lake and back, that's a major hike. The problem with trying to get down there to get food and trying to get back to the site, that's a major hike."

Realizing that drastic measures had to be taken for both Kootook and himself to survive, the vegetarian Hartwell made the decision to eat meat cut from Hill's thighs. Kootook refused to eat the human remains and instead subsisted on bark and lichen for another 10 days in -38 C weather.

"He was a real hero," the 47-year-old reported after being rescued.

Hartwell said he believed Kootook died from lack of hope after their Dart signaler failed to make contact with a passing plane. The last three days of Kootook's life were spent lying on the ground as the emaciated teenager waited to die.

"The night he died, I woke up to hear him coughing. He was unconscious. I tried to give him artificial respiration, but it didn't work," Hartwell reportedly said to his employer after his rescue, as part of a statement issued to media at the time.

Alone and looking into the eyes of death, the German-born Hartwell, decided to pen a goodbye letter to his son, Peer Herrmann, who lived in Cologne, Germany.

"When you receive this letter, I will be dead. I have had an accident on Nov. 8, 1972 and I am still laying in the bush with broken legs. Have no more food. Please forgive me for sins. I love you, my only son. Please contact Miss Susan Haley c/o Department of Philosophy, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta. She was, for the past year-and-a-half, a close companion ... I am wishing you all the best and remember me. In my heart I was not all that bad."

After spending 31 days at the crash site, Hartwell was finally rescued on Dec. 9 by a Canadian Forces para-rescue team and search and rescue aircraft responding to a distress beacon from the downed plane.

The plane was found 322 km from Yellowknife by Hottah Lake, south of Great Bear Lake. Hartwell greeted the rescue team by proclaiming, "Welcome to the camp of a cannibal."

Taken to Stanton Hospital, Hartwell was found to have lost 30 pounds but was both physically and mentally well.

"I don't want pictures. I don't want publicity. I'm the one who should be dead," said Hartwell in his statement.

Following the rescue, a coroner's inquiry was held into the crash. A jury found that Hartwell's inexperience in flying the Beechcraft at night and that "all the instruments necessary for night flight were not in the proper working condition" had led to the crash. The jury also recommended that Kootook should be cited for his bravery during the ordeal.

"What I found, and one thing I found interesting, is that down in southern Canada, when I was coming back through, the people were all shocked and what worried them was the cannibalism," said former mayor Dave Lovell, who was returning from South America when Hartwell was rescued.

"And when I got back North, by and large, the people weren't really worried about the cannibalism. He survived and that is all there is to it. They were more annoyed that he made the flight. It was the judgment to take that flight with that plane, at that time, when there was another plane available."

Hartwell was flying planes again two years later. He eventually married Haley and had two daughters with her. They are currently living in Black River, N.S., where Haley is an author. Yellowknifer contacted Haley and Hartwell for an interview but was told by Haley through e-mail that "neither of us would like to do this."

"My feeling is that he had a fairly good reputation as a pilot right up until he retired," said Lovell. "He flew in the territory for a long time after. I'm sure in Fort Norman. He actually was based in the territory for 20 years after (the crash) at least and people flew with him and everything else. He wasn't shunned by any means."


Flight Engineer Bernard "Shorty" Hazelton - "I was on this search with an Argus out of S'Side. P.E.I. We operated out of Edmonton with two crews with Argus 10732. which now sits in the museum in Trenton. The Argus woke him and he got up and turned on his ELT. Which enabled the Argus to home in on him."