The president of Ontario’s air ambulance service says it’s too early to say what caused an Ornge helicopter to crash overnight Friday, killing all four people aboard.

Dr. Andrew McCallum said the two pilots who were operating the helicopter at the time were experienced veterans, as were the two paramedics on board.

“Their lives were lost in serving the public, and we owe a deep debt of gratitude,” McCallum told reporters Friday afternoon.

The Ornge helicopter crashed at 12:11 a.m., just over a kilometre from where it took off in Moosonee, Ont.

McCallum said it’s too early to say what caused the crash.

“We look forward to the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, obviously, because we’ve been asking all the same questions and their investigation is really just getting underway.”

McCallum said the aircraft, a Sikorsky S76 helicopter, was manufactured in 1980 and had been flying for more than 30 years. He said there are 31 models of the aircraft currently operating in Canada.

McCallum said he didn’t know the circumstances the pilots were facing before taking off, but he added that officials are searching for a voice recorder that was on the aircraft at the time.

“That will be very useful for the Transportation Safety Board who will ultimately be in charge of the investigation,” McCallum said.

As a precaution, five other Sikorsky S76 helicopters used by Ornge have been taken out of service, however, McCallum stressed that it should not affect service elsewhere.

“We have patients we continue to serve and we’re working hard to ensure that that’s maintained,” he said. “It’s obviously no easy day. It’s a very challenging situation, but I’m confident our people will continue to do their best.”

Earlier on Friday Rob Giguere, Ornge's chief operating officer, told reporters there is no indication of what caused the accident, noting weather at the time was overcast with good visibility and light rain.

"I can say the crew, the pilots, were very well experienced. In fact, the captain was very well known in the helicopter world, an extremely well-experienced captain who has operated out of Moosonee and has been an EMS pilot for some time," Giguere said.

The following Ornge employees were killed in the crash:

  • Captain Don Filliter of Skead, Ont.
  • First Officer Jacques Dupuy, of Otterburn-Park, Que.
  • Primary Care Flight Paramedic Dustin Dagenais, of Moose Factory, Ont.
  • Primary Care Flight Paramedic Chris Snowball, of Burlington, Ont.

No patients were on board the helicopter, which was en route from Moosonee to Attawapiskat to pick up a patient.

Moosonee is located about 19 kilometres south of James Bay and roughly 600 kilometres north of Sudbury. The isolated community of 3,500 has no road access and all visitors to the community must travel by train or plane.

A crew from the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre at CFB Trenton responded to the call Friday morning and located the downed helicopter. Two search and rescue technicians parachuted down to the wreckage, but found no survivors.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne issued a statement Friday saying she was "devastated" to learn of the deaths.

"The pilots and paramedics of Ornge provide lifesaving services in every region of this province, and my thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of these brave individuals," she said. “They lost their lives ensuring the people of this province receive the help they need. Their service and sacrifice will be honoured and remembered."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his sympathies in a tweet Friday morning, saying: “Condolences to the families of the four victims of the northern Ontario air ambulance crash last night. You are in my thoughts and prayers.”