If the dead could listen to our stories, they would have heard a remarkable one in the Baptist Cemetery in Vittoria.
The guest speaker at the annual Decoration Day and Memorial Service June 9 was diver Mike Fletcher of Port Dover, a star of the Sea Hunters and Dive Detectives TV series on the National Geographic, History, Discovery and Smithsonian channels among others.
Fletcher came to Vittoria prepared to talk about a local shipwreck. However, at the last minute, he ditched the script and spoke instead of a recovery operation he worked on in northwest Saskatchewan in March.
Fletcher was brought into the picture by Dr. Linda Kapusta and her husband, Dr. Don Kapusta, both of Toronto.
Linda Kapusta’s father Ray Gran was a bush pilot who went on to fly for Saskatchewan Government Airways. He died Aug. 20, 1959 when he crashed a float plane into Peter Pond Lake in the north part of the province.
Authorities confirmed the location after personal effects and airline property washed ashore. Also killed in the crash was conservation officer Harold Thompson.
The Kapustas did nearly two years of research and preparation before setting out to find the Cessna 180 last summer. They were surprised to see it on a sonar side-scan a couple days into their quest.
They wanted to solve the mystery of Gran’s death for Linda’s mother Marcella. Marcella was pregnant with Linda when Ray Gran was killed.
“Linda’s mom would generally accompany her husband on his flights,” Don said. “However, because of Marcella now being pregnant with Linda, Raymond suggested she not fly any more. And it was that flight that crashed as a result of the adverse weather that day.”
Marcella Gran, 83, was living in a long-term care home when the plane was located. She died unexpectedly July 31 – the day after her daughter and son-in-law found the missing aircraft.
“Sadly, my mother Marcella passed away just hours later, before we could tell her we had finally found the aircraft,” Linda said. “It was heartbreaking. She never got the news. Our preliminary findings suggested my father’s remains and the remains of his passenger — Harold Thompson — may still be in the aircraft. Our focus now was to finally bring my father’s remains home and to recover the remains of his passenger for his family.”
The Kapustas contacted Fletcher out of frustration after the RCMP put a freeze on the site. Police planned to investigate and they wanted no one disturbing the wreck. Fletcher told the family to be patient; that everything would work itself out.
Police confirmed it was the missing plane. They retrieved skeletal remains and personal effects. However, they also complained of murky diving conditions due to sediment in the water. The footage they brought to the surface was useless.
Having established what happened, police were no longer seized of the site. The Kapustas wanted to do a thorough recovery and had already arranged for the Saskatchewan Aviation Museum in Saskatoon to take possession of the wreck.
Enter Mike Fletcher. He recognized this would not work as a professional job due to the exacting standards for such a procedure under Saskatchewan labour law. However, if Fletcher agreed to do the work on a non-profit basis, the rules were less stringent.
Fletcher chose a winter dive because he wanted a thick layer of ice on the lake. This allowed the positioning of tents, vehicles and equipment. The ice was also useful as a buffer against turbulent weather.
Fletcher brought 42-years of experience to bear on the situation along with an array of specialized equipment.
This included an underwater vacuum that helped the team collect bones and additional personal effects such as wallets, car keys, a watch, a pilot’s licence, a jackknife and the like.
Local Dene took an interest in the operation and provided helpful logistical support, as did residents of Michel Village nearby. Ceremonies on shore included the burning of tobacco and sweet grass.
“It all made us feel guilty that we hadn’t invited them in the first place,” Fletcher said. “This was part of their history, and it was important to them to help these souls find peace.”
In 60 feet of water, Fletcher separated the wings from the fuselage and harnessed the pieces so they could be extricated one at a time.
At the end of the three-day operation, all concerned were amazed when Gran’s wedding ring came to the surface in a crease in a wing – a distinctive piece of jewelry made of gold, emeralds and diamonds.
“That was another sense of accomplishment,” Fletcher said. “There was this sense of fulfillment and success, and this feeling of gratitude to the residents of Michel Village and the Dene people.
“It was very worthwhile and fulfilling for me. It seemed like just the right story to tell that day in the cemetery.”
The human remains were entrusted to an attending coroner. The ring and other personal effects were handed over to the Kapusta family. Ray Gran will be laid to rest beside his widow Marcella in Saskatoon on July 20.