Nine killed, one injured in Dillingham plane crash

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Nine people were killed and one injured Wednesday morning when a PenAir commuter plane crashed soon after taking off from the airport in Dillingham.

Alaska State Troopers said the plane, a single-engine Cessna 208 Caravan, was bound for King Salmon when it crashed almost immediately after taking off at 10 a.m. At least eight of the nine passengers were affiliated with the Bristol Bay Native Association, said the association's chief operating officer Terry Hoefferle.

The plane crashed into the tundra about two miles from the end of runway, said Richard Harding, vice president of operations for PenAir. He said the plane had a pilot and nine passengers on board. Five were male and five were female.

''The crash was described to be high impact from low altitude,'' said trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

Hans Nicholson, subsistence coordinator for the Native association, saw the Cessna go down about a mile from his office. He said he was talking to a client on the phone when the plane came into view through his window.

The Cessna was flying low, as usual for commuter planes taking off from Dillingham. Suddenly the left wing dipped and the nose pointed up before the plane was ''completely upside-down,'' Nicholson said.

The plane then nose-dived.

''It went vertical,'' Nicholson said. ''It virtually quit flying and went straight down.''

The plane disappeared behind a hill and Nicholson called 911.

''It's incomprehensible that something like this could happen right in front of you,'' he said.

Cheryl Hinkes, member services manager for Nushagak Cooperatives, which provides telephone and electric service, said she was looking out her office window when she saw the plane crash about a half-mile away.

''I just happened to be looking out my window. It was flying along just normal and rather suddenly it took a dive and then really took a dive,'' she said. ''It just whammed into the ground and it was over.''

At least eight of the nine passengers on board were connected to the Bristol Bay Native Association, a community and social service agency serving 32 communities in the Bristol Bay area, including the Alaska Peninsula.

Hoefferle said four of the association's 38 board members were on the flight. Three staffers, including the only survivor, were on board, as was an association home care client, a senior citizen able to live in her home with help from the association.

All four board members were from villages on the Alaska Peninsula, Hoefferle said.

Nicholson said many of those killed were returning to their villages after attending an association board meeting.

The injured passenger, a woman, was taken in critical condition to Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, said spokesman Ralph Andrew. She was later transferred to Anchorage.

The plane also was scheduled to continue on from King Salmon to Chignik about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

Harding said there were no calls indicating the plane was in trouble. And he said there was no evidence the plane exploded.

''There was no explosion, no fire,'' he said.

The plane had no previous reports of trouble and the plane was fairly new, Harding said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has classified the crash as a major event and will send investigators to the crash site from Anchorage and Washington, D.C., said Scott Erickson in the Anchorage office.

Temperatures were in the low to mid-30s, skies were clear and no wind was reported, Wilkinson said.

Names of the victims will not be released until next of kin is notified, Wilkinson said.

He said the NTSB gave troopers permission to begin removing bodies from the crash scene. Troopers will take thumbprints from the victims to confirm identities before notifying families.

''We need positive confirmation of identities,'' Wilkinson said.

Hoefferle indicated the mood was somber among staffers remaining at the Bristol Bay Native Association office in Dillingham. Most staff members were sent home after the crash.

''We've got a skeleton crew here,'' Hoefferle said. ''Everybody else has gone home.''

The association is the social service arm of Bristol Bay Native Corp., one of 13 regional corporations created in under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement.

Dillingham is about 330 miles southwest of Anchorage on Bristol Bay.

Troopers, Dillingham volunteer firefighters, Dillingham police, the Alaska National Guard, hospital personnel, the state Department of Transportation and search and rescue volunteers responded to the scene.

The Cessna 208 Caravan can carry up to 14 people.

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