Crash takes toll on Native organization

Eight of the passengers on Wednesday's fatal PenAir flight were in Bristol Bay Native Association

Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE - At least eight of the nine passengers killed in a plane crash Wednesday morning in Dillingham were affiliated with the Bristol Bay Native Association, said its chief operating officer Terry Hoefferle.

The cause of the crash of the PenAir single-engine Cessna Caravan, shortly after it took off at 10 a.m. in Dillingham, has not been determined. Nine of the 10 people on board were killed. The survivor, MaryAnn Christensen of Port Heiden, 49, was reported in critical condition at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

PenAir released the following names and hometowns of the dead: Pilot Gordon Mills, 41, of Dillingham; Carla Grunert, 49, and her 15-year-old son Ross Grunert of Chignik Lagoon; John Christensen Sr., 61, and Lena Matson, 73, of Port Heiden; Richard Takak, 35, of Chignik Lake; Valerie Larson, 36, and Virginia Andrew, 40, of Dillingham; and Andrew Abyo, 59, of Pilot Point.

Hoefferle said four of the Native 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. The association is a nonprofit social services agency serving 32 villages in the Bristol Bay region.

The loss is a blow not only to Dillingham but to the surrounding villages, said Hans Nicholson, subsistence coordinator for the Native association, who saw the Cessna go down about a mile from his office.

"These board members are the backbone of Bristol Bay. It's very devastating," he told the Anchorage Daily News.

From his window, Nicholson said, he watched the left wing of the low-flying airplane dip down and the nose point up before and the plane turned upside down. The aircraft then nose-dived into the tundra.

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

The plane disappeared behind a hill and Nicholson called 911.

The National Transportation Safety Board has classified the crash as a major event and said investigators from Anchorage and Washington, D.C. would be sent to Dillingham.

Temperatures at the time of the crash were in the low to mid-30s, skies were clear and no wind was reported, said state trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

The crash site was in tundra about two miles from the end of runway, said Richard Harding, vice president of operations for PenAir. The plane was bound from Dillingham, about 330 miles southwest of Anchorage, to King Salmon 75 miles southeast of Dillingham.

The PenAir crash was the sixth fatal accident in 20 years for Alaska's largest commuter airline.

Despite that record, the 46-year-old airline has enjoyed a reputation as a safe carrier and a leader in aviation safety in the state, according to those within the aviation industry in Alaska.

A total of seven people died in PenAir planes that went down in 1985, 1990, 1994 and 1996, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's online database, which dates back to 1983. Four more people died in 1981 when a medevac plane crashed after taking off in bad weather from King Cove.

"We haven't had anything for years. It is pretty much a shock," Harding said of the accident Wednesday.

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