Former state Rep. Cheryll Heinze was still strapped in her seat, her seatbelt fastened, when rescuers found her submerged in cold lake water after the plane crashed July 10 in Homer, federal investigators say.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Monday released preliminary findings on the cause of the accident that killed Heinze and injured four others. Heinze appeared "unconscious and unresponsive" when pulled from the sunken, up-side down cabin, according to the report.
Pilot Joe Griffith told the agency that his private Cessna 206 cartwheeled just after touchdown on Beluga Lake. A gust of wind had lifted the left wing and forced the right wing into the water, according to a preliminary report.
"The airplane nosed over abruptly," the report says.
Water flooded the cabin as the passengers struggled to escape, Griffith told the Daily News in a Thursday interview.
A former Anchorage lawmaker, Heinze was treated at a Homer hospital but died in the hours following the crash, her husband has said.
Everyone on board worked for Palmer-based Matanuska Electric Association, where Griffith is the general manager and Heinze served as human resources and public affairs director.
The preliminary NTSB report offers new insight into the moments before and after Griffith's single-engine floatplane flipped while landing.
Griffith told investigators that the Cessna made a normal, southerly approach to Beluga Lake. Turbulence shook the plane as it descended, he said. Griffith estimates the wind was blowing at about 10 knots, with gusts of 12 to 14 knots, according to the report.
Investigators also talked to a pilot who was standing on the shore of lake at the time of the accident and reported strong, gusty conditions out of the northeast. That pilot estimated the winds at 20 to 25 knots, the report says.
Griffith saw no sign of mechanical problems before landing, the report says.
Heinze was sitting by herself in the third row of seats, at the back of the plane. A passenger in the second row told investigators that he and the three other men on board struggled to escape the inverted, sinking wreckage by forcing their way through the aft, right-side door.
The airplane's flaps were down, blocking the upper portion of the door and making it hard to open, the passenger told investigators. The man, who is not named in the report, said he eventually forced the door slightly open and the men slid through a 10 to 12-inch gap in the doorway.
"After all four exited the airplane, they realized that one passenger (Heinze) was still within the submerged wreckage, and they attempted to get back into the cabin area to search for her," the report says.
The passenger said he sat on top of the fuselage and forced the door fully open with his feet.
Griffith said he and another passenger were unable to pull Heinze free, and could not find her seatbelt to cut her loose.
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.
The MEA officials were flying to Homer for a fishing trip at the invitation of Stanley Consultants, a power plant contractor.
"An open invitation was extended to Matanuska Electric to join us on a one-day fishing trip as our president and senior officers were in Alaska this week visiting clients," the Iowa-based company said in a written statement Friday.
"Stanley Consultants is greatly saddened by the death of Cheryll Heinze. We have a long standing relationship with Matanuska Electric Association and extend our condolences to her family and the entire MEA family, whom we have worked with for many years," the company said.