Pilot tells of trying to rescue ex-lawmaker after Homer crash

Pilot, passenger repeatedly tried to free Heinze, trapped in the cabin.

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 12, 2012 

The floatplane that crashed on a Homer lake, killing former state Rep. Cheryll Heinze, cartwheeled an instant after landing in gusty conditions, the pilot said Thursday.

Joe Griffith said he was ending a peaceful flight into Homer on Tuesday evening when a burst of wind appeared to catch the plane. The left wing shot upward, the right wing tilted down and touched the water, he said.

The Cessna 206 flipped, coming to a rest upside down, he said. Lake water flooded the cabin as Heinze sat trapped inside.

"I'm a big tough guy. I've spent three years in mortal combat and this has hit me harder than any of the combat and losses that I went through," Griffith, a Vietnam veteran and former flight wing commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base, said in a phone interview.

Here is the pilot's account of the crash:

'GET THE DOOR OPEN'

Griffith is the general manager of Palmer-based Matanuska Electric Association. The Cessna carried four other MEA employees, including Heinze, 65, the public affairs and human resources director. The mission: Arrive in Homer on Tuesday night in anticipation of a fishing trip the next morning.

Also in the cabin, according to state troopers, were:

• Tony Zellers, 49, the project director for MEA's Eklutna power plant project.

• Eddie Taunton, 52, safety manager for the utility.

• Tony Izzo, 51, a former Enstar Natural Gas Co. president who is now fuel supply and contract manager for the power plant effort.

A contractor on the Eklutna project had invited the MEA officials along for the day trip. It was an uneventful flight, right up until the Cessna reached Homer, Griffith said.

The pilot could see wind gusts on Kachemak Bay as he approached Beluga Lake, the only landing site for floatplanes in Homer. "They were what a pilot would call a left-quartering headwind," Griffith said.

Griffith flew his first Air Force jet 50 years ago and has since piloted dozens of makes and models of aircraft, amassing about 6,000 hours of flight time. This was nothing his private Cessna couldn't handle, he said.

"The lake was not too bad," Griffith said. "So I put it down as much into the wind as I could. We landed very normally."

The plane was traveling about 45 or 50 knots when the left wing rose, plucking a float out of the water, Griffith said.

"Probably a microburst," the pilot said, referring to a gust whipping off the lake side hills or trees.

"The right wing hit the water and she went over. ... As soon as it did, that was it. You're along for the ride," Griffith said.

Suddenly the pilot and his four passengers were upside down, water rushing into the cabin. Heinze, who Griffith estimates has flown as many as 500 hours with him, sat by herself in the third row, in the rear of the plane.

"Seat belts!" Griffith shouted. "Get the door open!"

The murky lake water filled the cabin. Just eight to 12 inches of air remained.

Everyone took a gulp. Taunton opened the door.

"There was no air left in the airplane when I got out," Griffith said.

Griffith said he's unsure of the order that the passengers left the plane. Heinze remained, apparently strapped in her seat.

"By the time I got headed for the door, the airplane was full of water. And I was gasping for air and drinking water and sucking it in," he said. "Once I got outside, I did have a hold of Cheryl's foot. So I know where she was."

Heinze was a regular flier and would have known what to do in a crash, Griffith said. He suspects she may have been incapacitated.

"I just have to think that," Griffith said. "My goodness, how many times have we flown together? Like I say, I'll bet it's 500 hours and every single flight I went on, I talked to her about what to do if we ended up upside down in the water."

Twice, the pilot ducked underwater to see if he could get into the airplane to see her, he said. "I wasn't doing any good (treading water) and pulling on her leg." He carried a Leatherman knife with a serrated edge and planned to slash her seatbelt.

First he had to find it.

UNDER WATER

Griffith found himself shaking and moving slowly, signs of hypothermia. He and one of the passengers, Zellers, inflated their life vests and struggled to make their way back into the submerged cabin.

"You had to hold your breath to do it," he said.

Griffith and Zellers tried to pull Heinze free.

"We've got to get the belt off!" they yelled to one another.

Presumably she was still strapped into her seat, but the pilot couldn't find the belt in the murky water. The upside down plane played tricks on his mind, making it more difficult to find and operate latches.

"I would have cut it, had I been able to get my hands on it," Griffith said.

The first rescuers to arrive wore dry suits, but there was some delay or problem in obtaining masks so they could see underwater, Griffith said. It was hard to say how long Heinze was underwater.

"As soon as they got there, Tony Zellers and I were about out of energy and ideas," Griffith said. "You lose your ability to even think right once you get very hypothermic."

Eventually, one of the rescuers appeared to use Griffith's knife to cut her free, he said.

Someone had pulled Griffith into a boat. He watched as paramedics tried to resuscitate Heinze on the float of a second plane on the lake. A Beaver had taxied up to help.

"They started CPR, they got a pulse on her and I believe she was also breathing at that point, but I don't think she regained consciousness," Alaska State Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said as news of the crash became public.

Heinze, who represented Midtown Anchorage for one term, was pronounced dead hours later in Homer, her husband said.

"Evidently her heart stopped again. And they were not able to revive her," said Harold Heinze, who had almost gone on the fishing trip too and was waiting at an Anchorage hospital, hoping to see his wife arrive by medevac.

NTSB INQUIRY

The Cessna, its floats bent from the impact, is now in a Homer hangar where investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board are examining it.

Lead investigator Brice Banning said he's interviewed Griffith as well as passengers, witnesses and rescuers. The final cause of the crash has not been determined but like all investigations will consider the pilot, the aircraft and environmental factors, including multiple reports of wind on the lake prior to the landing.

Griffith holds FAA certificates as both a commercial and private pilot. He renewed his medical certification in June. His second-class medical certification allows him to fly passengers for pay, if he wished, but not to fly an airliner, according to the FAA.

The MEA officials were headed to Homer for a Wednesday morning fishing trip hosted by Stanley Consultants, an engineering contractor on the power plant project, utility spokesman Kevin Brown said. Griffith covered the costs of the flight, according to MEA.

"The plane involved in the accident is owned, operated, and maintained at Mr. Griffith's personal expense," Brown said.

The utility is a non-profit cooperative. Griffith, the general manager, said he considered himself to be on leave during the flight.

"Was it an official event, sanctioned by MEA? We didn't schedule it and plan it. Stanley did and invited us and I said, 'I'll take the people down there in my airplane.' "

Asked if he thought the crash could have been avoided, Griffith said he supposed so. Maybe with 5 more knots of air speed and a little more time he could have forced the left wing down, he said.

"It was almost instantaneous," he said. "There seemed to be no delay when that wing came up. I think it would have been difficult, no matter what, to successfully have countered whatever that gust was."

Griffith met with members of Heinze's staff for about an hour Thursday, he said.

"I have counselors talking and meeting with my people to try and deal with this. She was a big factor in MEA's recent successes," he said. "I miss her, and everybody else does."

A memorial is in the works for sometime early next week in Palmer, MEA said. .

"She was a dear, dear friend and completely innocent in the process," Griffith said. "And I was there trying to get her out of the airplane. And terrible conditions. And I was unsuccessful.

"And that's really, really, really, really hard to live with."


Reporter Lisa Demer contributed to this story. Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

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