Denise Weisgerber remembers the conversation she had last year with her son, the day before he went missing while flying a small aircraft to Kamloops from Cranbrook.
“It was light and it was happy. He was telling us that he was coming down for vacation, he was going to visit for a while and then he was going to fly the Vancouver coast,” she told Kamloops This Week.
What followed instead was a full-scale search between Kamloops and Cranbrook for her son, Alex Simons, and his girlfriend, Sydney Robillard. They were in a Piper Warrior aircraft that left Lethbridge for Kamloops on June 8, 2017. It vanished following a refuelling stop in Cranbrook, the town of about 20,000 in the Kootenays.
Two weeks ago, a service was held for Simons at Holy Family Parish in Valleyview, It was attended by more than 75 friends and family members, some of whom travelled from as far away as Germany to pay their respects to the young man who grew up in Barnhartvale.
Weisgerber said the service felt like a necessary step in the healing process.
“It’s hard when you have nothing to pay respects to, it’s hard when there’s no body, it’s hard when you don’t have a formal funeral,” she said.
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Weisgerber recalled beginning to worry at about 5 p.m. on that fateful day last year when she hadn’t heard from the two 21-year-olds, prompting her to make a few calls.
She called Lethbridge Airport, but when there was no answer, she phoned the local flight school at which Alex had trained, assuming he rented the aircraft there. She said the person she spoke with from the flight school hadn’t heard from Simons since he stopped in Cranbrook and they reported the plane missing on her behalf.
The plane took off from Lethbridge at 8:35 a.m. PDT on June 8, 2017. After stopping in Cranbrook, Simons and Robillard took to the air again at 2 p.m. Four hours later, the RCMP was called and told the plane did not arrive at Kamloops Airport.
Throughout the search, Weisgerber said she communicated with Lt.-Col. Bryn Elliott of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“He called me every day to give me updates,” Weisgerber said.
A few weeks after the plane went missing, she met Elliott to go over the flight plans and area searched.
Throughout the first week, Weisgerber said she held out hope her son was alive, that he had landed the plane somewhere and that it was only a matter of finding the aircraft. But it was difficult to determine where the plane might have gone as the terrain is vast, rocky and heavily treed. Poor weather conditions in the first few days also hindered search efforts.
The Piper had an emergency beacon, but no viable signals were detected during the search. The plane has not been located.
About two weeks after the plane went missing, further search activity was suspended pending new evidence indicating a strong likelihood of locating survivors.
Over a 12-day search period, 18 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and Civil Air Search and Rescue (CASARA) aircraft flew approximately 576 hours and covered some 37,513 square kilometres. Alongside more than 70 RCAF personnel were 137 volunteer pilots and spotters from CASARA, averaging 10 aircraft per day.
In the months following the search, Weisgerber did not receive updates, but said she was contacted by local police in January, requesting permission for Simons’ dental records. She said Kamloops Mounties described the request as routine and did not indicate they had found any evidence of the whereabouts of Simons, Robillard and the Piper.
“I don’t know why they waited,” Weisgerber said.
Weisgerber said the past year has been difficult for her, noting she has managed with the support of others.
“People have been so kind. My friends have been there and my family. Without support, it would have been so much more difficult,” Weisgerber said, adding she would like to extend her gratitude to Elliott, the many civilian pilots who searched for her son last year and family and friends.
Michael Potestio, Kamloops This Week