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Travelogue - 08/16/04                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages


Death At My Doorstep

I didn't actually see the airplane crash, although if I'd looked out the window at that fatal moment I would have. I didn't even hear it, though it was less than a half mile from me. I was inside my RV when it happened, parked on an empty stretch of beach, suiting up for an after-lunch hike along the eastern shore of Resurrection Bay. I strapped on my belt pouches - digital camera, binoculars, bear spray, hunting knife - the basics without which I don't even go for a stroll in these parts. I also slung a bota-full of drinking water over my shoulder and grabbed my hiking stick on the way out the door.

I had already selected a point of land a short distance away to aim for, hoping to find a trail through the forest from there that would skirt the cliffs further along the shoreline. I set out at an easy pace in that direction, walking along the water's edge, enjoying the solitary tranquility and the promise of a pleasant afternoon in the woods. It was a warm day, bright but hazy. The north wind had been blowing since the day before, carrying smoke down from the Interior wildfires again, Alaska having endured a record-breaking fire season this year.

There were more boats than usual on the bay, this being Sunday, but what I noticed first was a small airplane circling low and, it seemed to me, steering erratically along my intended route. I supposed it was a student or novice pilot practicing turns. The first indication that something was amiss occurred a moment later when I spotted several people a few hundred meters down the beach ahead of me, the only others out here. They ran to the water's edge and began waving their arms frantically over their heads, a gesture often used as a distress signal. Then they pointed in an exaggerated way to their left. I pulled out my binoculars to see better. They seemed to be directing this pantomime at a small motorboat close off the stony beach. It must have worked because a moment later the boat throttled up and sped down the shoreline beyond the waving group.

I walked on a bit farther, then stopped and raised my binoculars again to see what the small boat was up to. As I watched, he zoomed in close to the rocky shore ahead, almost exactly where I had been heading myself. I could just make out what looked at first like a pointed rock poking up out of the water. Then I decided it looked manmade, like part of a small, sunken boat. Then I realized somebody was clinging to whatever was poking up. The motorboat pulled in close and someone threw a life preserver to the person on the floating object. I walked on quickly then until I reached the people I'd seen waving on the beach and, after the briefest greeting, I asked them if they knew what was going on. That's when I learned that a small airplane had just crashed into the water over there.

These folks, two couples and a teenager, had been picnicking on the beach when they saw this plane glide down low along the near slope as if it were going to land, or maybe do a "touch & go" on a gravel bar that stretched out where the beach intersected the forested shoreline. Instead, the plane, which had landing wheels, not pontoons, came down onto the water a hundred yards short of the bar. Almost instantly its nose stabbed into the sea and the plane pitch-poled onto it's back. It sank quickly, they said, leaving only a bit of the tail sticking above the surface of the cold water.

These folks immediately dialed 911 on their cell phone. I found out later the small boat over by the wreck belonged to an off-duty state trooper who just happened to be nearby and responded to a police radio broadcast relaying the 911 report. Soon more official vessels began arriving. First a bright orange Coast Guard inflatable, then a Police Patrol boat and an Alaska State Trooper speedboat.

It turned out where I joined the picnickers was about as close as we could get to the crash site on foot. A small but swift-running and icy-cold stream, which I had not seen from my RV when I'd set out to hike along this shore, empties into the bay just past there, effectively blocking the way. Beyond the stream were some gravel bars, and then the shoreline cut south at the base of a steep, thickly wooded slope. That's where the downed plane was lying.

We watched the rescue vessels through binoculars, helpless ourselves to do more. Soon police and fire department vehicles came speeding out onto the beach, followed by an ambulance and assorted cars and pickup trucks. They parked haphazardly around us. A local reporter showed up. 

I gleaned more information by eavesdropping on the handheld radio conversations between the rescue personnel around me and those on the boats over by the plane. The one fellow I'd seen crouched on the plane's floating tail earlier was now safely aboard one of the boats, but there were still two people inside the inverted, submerged cockpit of the airplane. If that were the case, they'd been down there for about twenty minutes already. 

The boat crews were calling urgently for divers, somebody with a tank. I saw a man go into the water from the Coast Guard inflatable. He seemed to be dressed in a bulky survival suit, not a diver's wet suit, and although he appeared to wear a mask and fins he wasn't wearing scuba tanks. Still, he must have managed to get a look at the trapped victims. Over the radios I now heard them calling for cutters, divers with tools to get at and free the unconscious passengers still trapped in the cockpit.

As I talked more with the witnesses I learned that the other small plane I had seen circling around earlier had apparently been flying in tandem with the downed plane. They said it had been following close behind when the crash occurred. Now that airplane returned, circling low over the crash scene and buzzing the beach where we stood.

Then he came around again and, to my great surprise, landed smoothly on the rough, rocky, sloping beach, just 100 yards from us. In Alaska one out of six people can pilot an airplane. Even so, I heard one woman nearby say, "Boy, I'd fly with that guy anytime." It was a difficult landing executed perfectly.

I could tell by the way the two men came running towards us from the landed plane that they were upset. One of them in particular looked like he was about to start crying as he desperately sought updated information from the rescue workers milling around.

Just then someone said, "They've got one out and they're bringing him over." As we watched, the orange Coast Guard inflatable came zooming towards us from the plane wreck and beached just yards from where I stood. I heard someone call out, "We've got a pulse" as rescue personnel rushed forward and lifted the victim, who we could now see was a heavyset woman, out of the inflatable boat and onto a stretcher. The woman was unconscious and frothing at the mouth. They were administering CPR, as they had been in the boat, trying desperately to get her breathing again. Then they whisked her across the beach to the waiting ambulance. 

A minute later the ambulance tore away, throwing gravel and dust as it went. I heard someone say over a radio, "We've lost her pulse," and then I heard no more. 

I wasn't there when they brought in the second victim, a man who had been trapped in the plane's cockpit underwater for at least 40 minutes at that point. I had walked back to my RV to see whether they needed me to move it. All of the emergency vehicles were coming and going by way of a narrow passage through the gravel turnaround in which I was parked, passing just a few feet from my camper. It turned out I was OK; the RV wasn't in the way. By the time I returned to the rescue scene the last victim had been taken away. Someone said there had been an air pocket in the cockpit and that's why the first woman they'd pulled out wasn't already dead, if indeed she wasn't. Maybe the man could be revived, but in these waters hypothermia might have killed them both in the amount of time they were submerged. 

One of the eyewitnesses to the crash was a small, wiry man with what I call a "cracker" accent. We chatted while we stood around on the beach watching the rescue efforts. Sure enough, he told me he was originally from Florida. He had moved up to Alaska 27 years ago and never left. He was here in Seward for the summer working for a construction outfit, quarrying rock from a rugged-looking glacial gorge that flanked the beach. He went on to say there were a couple of big black bears and at least one grizzly up in there right now, maybe a mile from where my RV sat. They'd been bothering the workmen camped in their trailers on the worksite. Most of the men had moved to a campground closer to town. "Anyway," he warned me, "keep your eyes open if yer gonna' do any hikin'. Them bears've been sniffin' at our doors up there. They seem a might inquisitive." I thanked him and made a mental note to bring my shotgun with me next time I go into the woods around Resurrection Bay. Not that a wild bear would be likely to attack me even if we did cross paths, as long as I didn't have food with me or surprise a mother with cubs. Still, 'tis better to err on the side of caution. Besides, it's so macho. I never got to carry a gun in Rhode Island.

The rest of the afternoon was anticlimactic, but interesting nonetheless. Once the victims were taken away, the scene on the beach cleared up and I soon found myself all alone there, as if nothing had happened. Except I could now see a tow boat slowly pulling the still-submerged airplane towards the nearby shipyard around the point, so I hiked over to watch them haul it out of the water.

Epilogue to Disaster

When I finished writing this account the next afternoon, I took a break and took out the garbage. This entailed hiking almost a mile to a dumpster beyond the shipyard where they'd hauled out the wrecked plane the day before. 

On the way back I spotted the plane lashed to a trailer, broken and forlorn. Beside it was a crew from ABC Alaska News out of Anchorage. Curious, I approached and discovered they were interviewing the Air Safety Investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board about the crash.

I stuck around and, when they were done, got to ask the investigator a few questions myself. Sadly, I learned that both of the passengers trapped in the plane had died. Sadder still were their relationships to the living. The woman I'd seen brought ashore was the wife of the pilot, the man who had been taken from the floating tail section and survived. The other passenger killed was the father of one of the men who landed on the beach in the second plane. They had all been out for a Sunday fly together, in two planes. Everyone was family and good friends. How terribly sad for the survivors.

I learned, too, why the plane crashed. The investigator said the airplane, a Maule 5, had developed an oil leak. Realizing this, the pilot was attempting to make it back to the Seward airport when the engine died. The plane lost altitude quickly. The pilot tried to glide onto the gravel bar across the stream from the beach so that he could at least put down on solid land, but the airplane lacked sufficient momentum. It was only 100 yards shy of the bar when it hit the water.

The investigator, a pleasant ex-helicopter pilot named Clint Johnson, inquired about what I'd seen. When I mentioned I'd taken photos of everything that followed the crash, he asked if he could have copies of them. He wound up driving me back to my RV and I burned a full set of my plane crash jpegs onto a CD for him, quite a few more photos than I have posted on this page. As he was leaving, the ABC Alaska news reporter, Annie Roach, pulled up with her cameraman and asked if they could film an interview with me for the Ten O'clock News. Having no pressing engagements at the moment, I agreed. She promised to send me a copy of the filmed interview, in which I summarized my version of yesterday's events for the camera. 

Looking back at what happened, I'd say the local rescue people - the Coast Guard, the fire department, the police and state troopers, and especially all those capable civilian volunteers that showed up so quickly when it really mattered - were outstanding. Fast and efficient, they all seemed well-trained to handle this sort of thing. Nobody yelled or became agitated. They just got on with what had to be done and did it about as well as conditions allowed. Even though they ultimately weren't able to save the lives of the two passengers inside the plane's cockpit, all those people deserve lots of credit. I'd like to have them on my side if I were in trouble. For my part, I did the only thing I was fit to do in this circumstance, which was to stay out of everybody's way. 

The local Seward newspaper came out later in the week. Click to see their article

Seeing something like this up close makes a person stop and think. Anybody can die at any moment. I could. You could. Doesn't matter how old or young you are. You get up in the morning and go to work or run an errand or do something with some friends, and WHAM. It's over, instantly. All of it. Everything. You don't go home that night. You don't get on with your life the next day. Whatever you left undone will stay that way forever. You wouldn't expect it any more than those people in the airplane did.

All the more reason, I say, to get out and do whatever you consider most worthwhile, whether it's flying an airplane, taking a trip, spending time with your kids, helping other people, weeding your garden or, in my case, simply being in, with and surrounded by nature. Now's the time to do it. Really.


Here are some photos from a hike I took a few days ago on Mount Marathon, overlooking Seward, Resurrection Bay and the Chugach Mountains. Click each one to enlarge it:


And here are some shots around the town of Seward, one of my favorites in Alaska.


Here is where I'm parked as I write this. Click on some of these photos. Is this an awesome place or what?


Next Entry: 09/03/04


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