Child dies, 4 hurt in plane crash

June 1, 2010 

Rescuers pulled four people from the wreckage of a sputtering small airplane that crashed into a Fairview building during afternoon rush hour Tuesday but were unable to save a preschool-age child before the crumpled airplane exploded in a ball of flames.

The Cessna 206 had just left Merrill Field when it went down about 5:05 p.m. at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Ingra Street, setting an unoccupied car dealership ablaze.

Police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker identified the people as a family of four and a teenaged girl, possibly a babysitter. Father Preston Cavner, 34, mother Stacie Cavner, 32, and their 2-year-old son, Hudson, were taken Tuesday night to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Ore., Parker said. The couple's 4-year-old son, Miles, died in the wreck, he said.

A 16-year-old, Rachel Ziempak, of Texas, was transported to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She was not related to the family, Parker said.

Police said all four survivors were in critical condition.

The plane lay crumpled on the ground aside John Stepp's Auto Center, a vacant used car dealership. Firefighters had the blaze under control by about 5:30 p.m., though they continued to pour water on the building and on the plane, where the child's body remained.

"There were a bunch of citizens that heard the crash and came over, trying to get people out," said Anchorage police Sgt. Mike Kerle. "As they were here, the flames started. At one point, one of the fuel tanks exploded and that's how the building caught on fire. They tried to get everybody out, but the fire was just too intense and they couldn't do it."

Paramedics and police from all over the city rushed to the scene, closing down a large section of Ingra Street to all traffic.

The people pulled from the wreck were initially treated on the street by medics. Some of the victims were covered by aluminum blankets.

'PEOPLE SCREAMING'

Witnesses reported the airplane was in obvious trouble before the crash. Adan Hernandez, 31, was heading home from work biking south on Karluk Street when the plane rumbled directly overhead.

"It was so loud, it hurt my ears. It rang my head," he said. "It started to wobble, like left to right, in the air. I realized this wasn't going to be good."

He heard it hit and rode toward the sound, just a couple of blocks away.

Some witnesses reported that the airplane, which was heading west from Merrill airfield, clipped the Ingra House, a rooming facility on the east side of the street, before wobbling down through a power line and hitting the ground, sliding into the northeast corner of the Stepp building on the west side of Ingra. A piece of airplane, possibly a wing or tail tip, had broken off and was visible in the parking lot across Ingra from the crash site.

Inside Ingra House, Michael Chester, 29, was in his third-floor room facing John Stepp's when he heard an engine revving loudly followed by a loud smack against the building. To him, it sounded like a NASCAR in-car camera when a driver hits the wall, he said.

"Just smack, crunch. I know that sound and it's not good," Chester said. "I looked out and I seen the plane just kind of hitting and then kind of bounced up a little bit."

When Hernandez reached the scene, there was at least one police officer there and more kept coming. People in the area stopped and rushed to help get the passengers out of the smoking airplane.

"People are scrambling left and right. There's people yelling for a fire extinguisher," he said. Some grabbed extinguishers from nearby buildings. "There were six or seven dudes and they lifted up the wing of the plane to try and get people out."

Down on Ingra, Pete Sesto, 29, had been on a test drive when seemingly out of nowhere, the navy blue airplane sputtered down from the sky into his field of view, clipped a power line and smacked into the building. He pulled off the road and ran over to the crash on the heels of two others who had been passing by, he said.

Those in front started pulling the plane doors open and getting the victims out, then passing them back to Sesto and others, who helped drag them out to the street, he said.

"As soon as it hit, I heard people screaming," Sesto said. "We were getting people out as quick as we could. People (on the plane) had torched pant legs and stuff. A lot of burns to the face, banged up. ... I don't know what just happened. That was pretty darn intense."

Another rescuer, Hunter Brosh, 29, had been driving north on Ingra to a guitar lesson when he saw a "surreal" crash. He said everyone on Ingra stopped, got out of their cars and went to help. He estimated that 25 good Samaritans got involved.

Brosh and others held up a wing to pull people out, he said. A young girl got out on her own, he said, but the pilot and a passenger were trapped. People ripped at the doors and seat belts, Brosh said.

Someone was saying there was a passenger left in the back of plane, possibly a baby or young child. A woman passenger in front of the plane was trapped and someone sprayed her with a fire extinguisher to protect her, he said. One man in a military uniform appeared to have some medical training and was offering more help than others.

At that point, Brosh said, there was only smoke. But a fire started a short time later.

"Oh my God, I couldn't believe it," Karen Gutierrez, 48, who lives in an apartment on Eighth Avenue, said as she saw the fire build. "I never felt so helpless."

Parker said the good Samaritans who pulled the four to safety may have saved their lives.

"They immediately descended on this thing," Parker said. "They were pulling people out, the four survivors out, before the airplane burst into flames. They got the people out. They saved their lives."

The airplane had a navy blue tail and wing, though much of the rest of the aircraft was incinerated in the fire. At the scene Tuesday evening, a black tire lay detached in a lot near the wreck and water-soaked wooden planks pulled from the husk of the car dealership lay amid the charred wreckage.

The words "Sound Flight" were printed on the tail and the airplane is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration to Cavner & Julian Inc., whose website promotes Stonewood Lodge on Lake Clark and a guide service for hunting, fishing and bear viewing in western Alaska. The airplane was based in Port Alsworth, according to the FAA.

NTSB air safety investigator Jennifer Rodi said the airplane was departing Merrill Field for an unknown destination when it went down just blocks from the airstrip. It wasn't immediately known where the child who died was sitting in the airplane.

A full investigation into the cause of the crash, including an inspection of the airplane's remains and a toxicology screening for the pilot, was getting under way Tuesday with an examination of the crash site, she said.

The crash was the second fatal plane wreck near Merrill Field in less than two years. On Oct. 1, 2008, another Cessna 206 lost power shortly after lifting off from Merrill Field and crashed into a nearby commercial building, killing two people.

The National Weather Service reported mostly cloudy skies and winds out of the southeast at 21 mph on Tuesday evening.

The vacant building, at 839 E. Seventh Ave., had most recently been a used-car dealership but had been vacant since November, said Anita Finnsson, a representative of a company overseeing the estate of the building's late owner, John C. Stepp Sr. Before that, it was a real estate office, Finnsson said.

The 1,400-square-foot building was heavily damaged in the fire.

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