ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – Residents of a rural Alaska village reached survivors of a commuter plane crash two hours after the aircraft went down Friday in freezing rain, authorities said Saturday.
The pilot and three passengers died in the crash of the single-engine turboprop Cessna 208. At least six passengers were transported for medical treatment. There was no report of a fire. Few other details, including the possible cause of the crash, are known, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson.
“It’s very much in the preliminary stages at this point,” he said.
The Hageland Aviation flight crashed around 6:30 p.m. about 6 km from the village of Saint Marys and rescuers reached the scene at 8:30 p.m., he said.
Pilot Terry Hansen and passengers Rose Polty, Richard Polty and Wyatt Coffee, an infant, died in the crash, Alaska State Troopers said. The survivors included Melanie Coffee, Pauline Johnson, Kylan Johnson, Tonya Lawrence, Garrett Moses and Shannon Lawrence. Their ages and hometowns were not immediately available
The initial count of people on board was unclear because at least one was a lap child, Johnson said.
Saint Marys, like scores of other Alaska villages, is off the state road system. People routinely use small aircraft to reach regional hubs where they can catch jets to complete trips to Anchorage or other cities.
The Cessna left Bethel at 5:40 p.m. and was scheduled for a stop in Mountain Village before continuing on to Saint Marys, a village of about 500 about 750 km west of Anchorage.
Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said the airplane would have been flying in freezing rain with visibility of about 1.6 km and a 90-meter ceiling.
Hageland Aviation, part of the Era Alaska group that includes Era Aviation, said the company received word at 6:34 p.m. that Flight 1453 had crashed, said Hageland President Jim Hickerson.
Saint Marys village public safety officer Fred Lamont Jr. told the Anchorage Daily News that a passenger on the plane, Melanie Coffee, called the village’s on-call health aide from the crash site. Villagers launched a search by snowmobile and on foot, he said.
The 40 to 50 people searching could not immediately spot the wrecked airplane despite speaking to survivors. They were hampered by fog.
Coffee was able to leave the wrecked airplane and walk just over 1 km to the village landfill, Lamont said, where she met a search party and guided responders to the crash site.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “She’s the hero in this.”
Johnson could not confirm details of the search and said information relayed to his agency from the village was sparse.
“Those kinds of details will be taken care of once the two investigators get out there,” Johnson said.
Reaching the wreckage will depend on weather and safety considerations, Peters said. No one was at the crash site Saturday morning. “There’s no rush to get there,” Peters said. “There’s no reason to risk anyone’s life because no one’s life is in jeopardy.”
Hageland’s Hickerson in a statement Saturday said the crash is “an unspeakable tragedy for us.”
“Hageland is working to gather information to answer questions and do what we can to ease the suffering of those involved in the accident,” he said.