ANCHORAGE — A commuter airplane that crashed and killed four people outside the southwest Alaska village of Saint Marys had diverted course because of deteriorating weather, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
The Hageland Aviation Cessna 208B Caravan with 10 people aboard was bound from Bethel to Mountain Village on Nov. 29. The pilot changed course before reaching Mountain Village and headed for Saint Marys about 20 miles away.
Witnesses in Saint Marys, a community of 524 people about 450 miles west of Anchorage, saw the plane traveling low over the local airport, heading southeast until its rotating beacon was out of sight.
The airplane crashed about a mile southeast of the Saint Marys airport.
The crash killed pilot Terry Hansen, 68; and passengers Rose Polty, 57; Richard Polty, 65; and 5-month-old Wyatt Coffee.
Six other passengers survived with serious injuries, including the mother of the baby, Melanie Coffee, 25; and other passengers Pauline Johnson, 37; Kylan Johnson, 14; Tanya Lawrence, 35; Garrett Moses, 30; and Shannon Lawrence, whose age wasn’t available.
Hansen was from Bethel and the nine passengers were from Mountain Village. The plane was scheduled to fly to Saint Marys and back to Bethel after landing in Mountain Village.
Despite a leg injury, Melanie Coffee walked about three-fourths of a mile to a communications tower and led searchers to the crash site.
Saint Marys and Mountain Village, like scores of other rural Alaska communities, are off the state road system. People routinely use small aircraft to reach regional hubs where they can catch another plane to complete trips to Anchorage or other cities.
The NTSB reported that at Saint Marys Airport eight minutes before the crash, there were winds of 8 mph with a ceiling of 300 feet and visibility of 3 miles. The temperature was 18 degrees.
The airplane was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder or flight data recorder and was not required to carry them.
The airplane left Bethel at 5:41 p.m. for the 112-mile flight to Mountain Village. Hansen was operating under visual flight rules as he flew northwest toward Mountain Village, investigators said.
Witnesses in Saint Marys spotted the airplane fly southeast over the Saint Marys airport. They expressed concern about its direction and altitude, the NTSB said, and unsuccessfully attempted to contact the pilot.
Another airplane quickly reported a transmission from an emergency locator transmitter near the village. Saint Marys officials checked the airplane’s last reported position on Hageland Aviation’s flight-following software and launched a search.
Alaska State Troopers, village police and a local search and rescue team began searching by snowmobile, car and truck but were hampered by fog. Additional searchers responded from Mountain Village and Pitka’s Point.
Coffee had called a village health aide for help resuscitating her baby. Guided by the communications tower light, she walked to the Saint Marys landfill and met searchers.
The main wreckage was on an open area of snow-covered tundra at 425 feet, investigators said. The airplane had hit the top of a ridge at 530 feet.
“From the initial point of impact, the airplane traveled approximately 200 feet before coming to rest in an upright position,” investigators said. “The airplane sustained substantial damage to the fuselage, empennage, and wings.”
Three passengers were pronounced dead at the crash scene. One died at the Saint Marys clinic, the NTSB said.
The wreckage will be transported from the crash site and a detailed examination will follow, investigators said.
Poor weather kept NTSB investigators from the crash site until Dec. 1. A final NTSB accident report can take a year or longer.