Family of 4 survives McGrath area plane crash; 2 die

WEATHER DELAY: Two teachers, two kids wait 14 hours for rescue

August 14, 2011 

A longtime teacher and a veteran bush pilot died Saturday evening in a plane crash on a flight from McGrath to Anvik, while four others on board survived, Alaska State Troopers said Sunday.

Killed were teacher Julia Walker, 52, of Anvik, and pilot Ernest Chase, 66, of Aniak, troopers said Sunday night.

The plane was carrying all three teachers from the Anvik school in the Iditarod School District, including a husband and wife new to the village who had been set to begin their first year of teaching, said Karen Ladegard, district superintendent. The couple's children also were on the plane.

That family -- parents Don and Rosemarie Evans, both 32, and children Donny, 10, and McKenzie, 8 -- survived the crash, troopers said. Don Evans was in good condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center Sunday evening and the rest of the family was in fair condition, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Troopers initially said four people died but that report was incorrect, trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

Alaska Air National Guard crews led the rescue and recovery effort, which was hampered by bad weather, according to troopers and the Air Guard.

Troopers said they first learned the plane was in trouble at 8:45 p.m. Saturday but rescuers didn't reach the crash site until more than 14 hours later, around 11 a.m. Sunday.

Relatives and work colleagues of those on board said they were frustrated by difficulties in getting solid information as well as the slow pace of the rescue.

POOR WEATHER

The plane was a single-engine Cessna 207 operated by Aniak-based Inland Aviation Services, Ipsen said. Chase was an experienced pilot with years of flying in western Alaska, according to Inland Aviation co-owner Steve Hill.

"We've been scrambling all night to get the rescue planes out there," Hill said Sunday afternoon.

The teachers, along with others from around the Iditarod district, were in McGrath for six days of training before the start of classes on Wednesday, Ladegard said.

They were initially supposed to return to Anvik Friday on Tanana Air Service, but were socked in by poor weather Friday and into Saturday morning, Ladegard said. Tanana canceled the flight around 2 p.m. Saturday.

Later that afternoon, the weather improved, and the district chartered the Inland Aviation plane, the superintendent said. It took off around 7 p.m. for a flight that was supposed to take an hour and 15 minutes, she said.

Hill flew to McGrath at the same time as Chase to pick up a separate group headed to Grayling, just up the Yukon River from Anvik.

"On the way up, it looked beautiful to the west," Hill said.

Then low clouds came in. Hill said he had to fly low to avoid the rough patches. "It was just squalls," he said. The weather behind them looked worse than what they were flying into, he said.

Chase was more familiar with the terrain and took a different route than Hill to the village.

"He went on one side of a mountain and I went on the other, and we lost radio contact," Hill said.

The plane crashed about 37 miles west of McGrath on the side of a small mountain.

CHALLENGING RESCUE

Inland Aviation was alerted through an emergency messaging device that the plane was in trouble and notified troopers around 8:45 p.m. Saturday. The 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center said it heard from troopers about 9:45 p.m. Around the same time, the center received reports of a signal from the plane's emergency locator transmitter.

Just before 1:30 a.m. Sunday, the center launched an HC-130 plane with Alaska Air National Guard pararescuers and officers from Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson.

But the rescue plane couldn't get below the cloud cover. It returned to base a little after 6 a.m.

Around 9 a.m., the Air Guard launched a rescue helicopter and another HC-130 plane.

From the air, the rescue crews spotted the crash site in steep, wooded terrain, according to the Air Guard.

Rescuers got to the scene around 11 a.m. Two were lowered down by a helicopter hoist. Three more jumped from the plane and landed in a nearby field, where they were picked up by the helicopter and taken to the crash site to reach the victims.

The four survivors were flown to McGrath, then to Providence Alaska Medical Center.

School officials went to the McGrath airport to try to get more information when the Air Guard's helicopter and plane came in, but couldn't, Ladegard said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. Investigator Clint Johnson went to the crash site Sunday with troopers and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector. He said he needed to talk to the survivors and analyze the wreckage before making any determination as to what caused the crash. The plane crashed into heavy brush on a 30- to 40-degree slope at about the 1,700-foot level.

TRAGEDY FOR A SMALL SCHOOL

Classes are supposed to begin Wednesday in the Iditarod district. Blackwell School in Anvik has 18 students, counting the teaching couple's children. Ladegard said the district's management team assembled Sunday evening to figure out what to do.

The Evanses had intended to share a position teaching fourth through eighth grades.

Walker taught kindergarten through third grade. Her brother, Carl Jerue of Anvik, said she had taught in the district many years. He spoke by phone on Sunday afternoon before authorities had released information on who was killed in the crash. He said it was especially hard getting conflicting reports on how many had died.

"We're all pretty much in the dark here, just waiting," Jerue said.

The flight path from McGrath is treacherous and the weather was bad Saturday night, he said.

State Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, represents the area and taught in the Iditarod district for 10 years.

Dick said in a statement that he had contacted the offices of Gov. Sean Parnell and Education Commissioner Mike Hanley "to ensure that all available resources, potentially including emergency, experienced school personnel and counselors are made available to the district at this time."


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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