ANCHORAGE - A chartered plane that crashed into a shallow harbor after taking off from Kodiak Island, killing six people, was carrying a group of fishermen from a dissident sect of the Russian Orthodox Church back home for Christmas.
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Four people survived the crash Saturday, and one of them later told investigators that the door to a baggage compartment in the nose of the small plane had popped open after takeoff.
"We want to look at the aerodynamic qualities of opening a very large door in flight," Clint Johnson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday. "This does not signal an end of our investigation of the crash by any means, but it at least played a part in it."
The Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain, operated by Kodiak-based Servant Air, crashed about 50 yards off the end of a runway after taking off Saturday afternoon, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB. The wreckage was recovered Sunday.
The passengers were members of Alaska's community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who had been fishing in Kodiak and were taking a short flight north to Homer to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas at home on Monday.
Dean Andrew, a pilot of a float plane, was taxiing nearby when he heard the Navajo pilot - 50-year-old Robin Starrett of Kodiak - on the float plane's radio saying he needed to return to the airport. Andrew said he knew Starrett and could tell by his voice that something serious was going on.
"I decided to stay put in case I was needed," Andrew told The Associated Press. "I had a feeling something would happen."
Soon after, Andrew said, he pulled the four survivors aboard his plane, a difficult job in winds estimated at 25 mph. He said one of the men was bleeding profusely from a head gash. All were scratched up, hypothermic and hysterical, pointing out that family members were in the submerged fuselage, according to Andrew, who operates a small air service.
"Once I got the four in, I could see down into the fuselage, but I couldn't see any signs of life," Andrew said. "I had an emotional time. I thought about diving in but I had to keep the plane running to hold it steady against the wind."
Johnson said 32-year-old survivor, Karnely Ivanov, told investigators that just as the Piper got airborne, the baggage area door opened at the nose of the plane on the pilot's side. That prompted the pilot to try to return to the airport.
Starrett was killed along with five passengers from Homer: Stefan F. Basargin, 36; Pavel F. Basargin, 30; Zahary F. Martushev, 25; Iosif F. Martushev, 15; and Andrian Reutov, 22, officials said.
Beside Ivanov, the survivors were identified as Feodot Basargin, 33; Andrean V. Basargin, 25; and Anton Rijkoff, 30.
Feodot was among two survivors flown to Anchorage for treatment and he was listed in fair condition Sunday, said John Callahan, a spokesman for Providence Health and Services Alaska. The conditions of the other three were not available, but Alaska State Troopers said the two who stayed in Kodiak were both treated and released.
Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century in protest of changes made in the church at that time. Their members are scattered throughout Russia, Asia and the Western Hemisphere, shunning much of the modern way of life. About 1,500 are believed to live in Alaska.
"Everybody knows everybody. It's a tragedy," said Greg Yakunin - an Old Believer and fisherman who knew all of the passengers - from the town of Nikolaevsk.
"They were all friends of mine," he said. "I could have been on that plane, too."
Yakunin said the Martushevs were brothers and so were the Basargins.
Iosif Martushev was a ninth-grader at Kachemak Selo school, and Reutov and Zahary Martushev were former students there, said principal Randy Creamer. The small school sits near Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in one of three Old Believer villages in the area.
Creamer said he knew Iosif well and remembered him as an artistic student who loved to do pencil drawings of moose, snowmobiles or fishing boats. Martushev was married and had several children and Reutov got married last fall, Creamer said.
The news about the deaths traveled quickly among the Old Believers. Many are "somehow related to each other," according to Creamer, who planned to have extra staff on hand to counsel students when classes resume Wednesday.
"This being such a small place, it's hitting people really hard," he said.
Servant Air serves half a dozen communities on the large island in south-central Alaska, 225 miles southwest of Anchorage. Kodiak and Homer each have populations of roughly 6,000.