What does SOS mean? Not rescue me, by all accounts!

March 6, 2009


Source: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/family+angry+about+delayed+rescue+effort/1331820/story.html ; http://www.vancouversun.com/news/response+fumbled/1330585/story.html; http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Funeral+skier+died+wilderness/1358023/story.html

When Gilles Blackburn and his wife (Marie-Josee Fortin) strayed off the path in an out-of-bounds area near the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, in British Columbia on 15th February, this started a catalogue of errors that eventually led to Marie-Josee’s death and Gilles living on leaves and creek water for 9 days!

Although the couple were only dressed for a day of skiing and did not have any survival gear with them, Gilles was an avid outdoorsman and was able to build a makeshift shelter using bow stems and branches. This is one of the reasons they survived for so long as the wind chill dropped to -25 some nights. Tragically, 7 days after they had become lost, Marie-Josee contracted hypothermia and died.

Each day, Blackburn drew SOS markings across several kilometres of snow, hoping they would be spotted by rescuers and helicopters. Finally on the ninth day, a helicopter pilot spotted the markings and search-and-rescue crews found him, suffering from frostbite, about 16 kilometres from the ski resort.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has now launched an internal review into why the rescue did not begin until several nearly a week later, despite two separate reports of the SOS markings. Indeed, when an off-duty guide first spotted these SOS markings, he contacted resort staff who told him that there were “no outstanding ski rentals or missing-person reports.” (Sadly, the resort staff overlooked Blackburn’s car parked in the underground car park at the resort). Even after a second sighting was reported to the RCMP, a search was not started as there were no reports of any missing skiers, and under British Columbian rules, volunteer search-and-rescue crews do not have the authority to start their own missions unless ordered to by a provincial authority (such as the RCMP). The third time, these marking were spotted, a pilot saw Blackburn and a rescue was launched.

So what exactly does SOS mean, if not a universal sign of distress? The RCMP has said that Blackburn should have laid down next to the signal as it was unsure how old the tracks were.

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

View all posts by Kris

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