Something Landed In Ottawa River

Something Landed In Ottawa River

Date: July 27, 2009

Location: Ottawa River, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

After 17 hours of searching the Ottawa River for a possible downed airplane, an emergency effort involving boats, an infrared equipped plane, a military helicopter and dozens of crew, the search was abruptly called off Tuesday afternoon.

Officials pulled the plug after realizing that none of the witnesses whose calls sparked the search had actually seen a plane in the sky.

The way the report is relayed for officers to proceed with a search, it was that someone was advising that they could see a small plane landing on the water, said Ottawa police media relations manager Carole Lavigne.

It turns out that nobody actually did.

It was about 10:00 p.m. Monday when witnesses called 911 about a loud bang and a bright light over the Ottawa River somewhere in the vicinity of the Deschenes Rapids.

On the basis of those calls, the dispatch went out to emergency responders to start the search.

Until 3:00 a.m. and then again starting at 6:00 a.m., the river got the full treatment, the marine units, the scrambled pilots and investigators on the ground.

It was a puzzling case.

There was no debris on the water, nor the oil slick of engine fuel that would be expected.

Nav Canada, whose radar can pick up even a flock of geese, had no record of anything falling out of the sky.

There were no reports of missing planes or people to explain it.

In the end, it wasn't the fancy equipment that cracked the case, but the police officers who reinterviewed the 911 callers.

There were 3 of them, and discovered that none of them had ever seen a plane.

Lavigne said Tuesday evening that there was a difference of information between what 911 dispatch thought the callers, or at least one of them, were saying and what the callers said they saw the next day.

The report, based on the 911 dispatch, is about the notion that there's one of the complainants who could see a small plane, Lavigne said.

When it comes to follow up, it seems that no one actually saw a plane.

Lavigne said although she hadn't heard the 911 audio it is now clear that the dispatchers didn't have as clear an understanding of what the callers saw as the police did the next day.

Perhaps adding to the confusion was the fact that, in addition to the initial 3 callers at around 10:00 p.m. there was at least one later call at 12:15 a.m.

Dr. Deborah Barry, an Ottawa psychotherapist, told the Citizen she & 3 other people were in a sailboat on the river at the time of the bang and the light.

She said one of the other people, a chiropractor who is learning to fly an airplane, thought the light looked like that of a plane, although none of them actually saw a plane.

Barry said she assumed the police already knew more than she did, but later called just in case.

Soon, officers came to her apartment, used her computer to print out a picture of the river from Google Earth and had her indicate the positions of the boat and the light in the sky.

Police did the same at the home of the chiropractor.

In the end, it's still not clear what produced the light and the bang, although the police are confident it was not a plane.

A meteor is not a likely explanation either since falling rocks from outer space usually generate calls from a much wider geographic area.

According to police spokesman Constable Alain Boucher, a flare or fireworks would probably be as good a bet as any at this point.

The notion that there was a plane sighting could be an expensive one, but police officials say it's generally better to over respond than to under respond.

Police chief Vern White said Tuesday night that as far as he understood the dispatch acted prudently on the information they gathered, which would have been consistent with a possible downed plane.

He added, though, that information collected in the heat of the moment during a 911 call is generally not as reliable as settled thoughts that come from witnesses later on.

Everybody's story tends to be more clear with a little bit more time to think about it, he said.

White said that when he was with the RCMP in the far North, he had situations on a weekly basis during the summer when witnesses would think they saw people floating by stranded on ice packs.

Many an expensive search later, it would turn out to be a number of walruses.

Then, like this time, it was also with air support from CFB Trenton.

I'm sure some days they hated me, he said.

Sometimes, that's just the way the job goes, White said.

If you don't throw all the resources at it, then the question is:

If you'd have done one more thing would it have made a difference?

You better have an answer.

A little after 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, after the all search equipment was packed up and most people had left, the police marine unit that had just searched all day came back to the little beach near the Britannia filtration plant where the mission was based and went again onto the water.

It was an unrelated 911 call from a witness who thought he saw the mast of a sailboat sticking out of the water.

About 15 minutes later the crew came back to shore.

The mast turned out to be a marker buoy.

Tired police marine & dive unit officer Brent MacIntyre was philosophical.

This is just part of doing your job.

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