GREENVILLE, S.C. — Just last Saturday, 11-year-old Ana Antonakos text messaged a photo of herself and her older sister, Olivia, to a few friends.
Behind them was a beautiful Alaskan landscape, the place they and their family and friends had traveled so far to see.
They had planned this 10-day vacation for months, an adventure for a family of adventurous people, Melet, the father; Kim, the mother; Olivia, 16, Mills, 14, and Ana. Longtime friends Chris McManus and his wife, Stacey, and their children, Meghan and Connor, were on the trip as well.
The next day, they all died in a plane crash at the Soldotna Municipal Airport. It was to have been a short flight to a lodge at Lake Clark National Preserve in southern Alaska.
The pilot of the single-engine plane died also.
"They were having a blast," said Merritt Byrd, 19, a neighbor whose younger sister received the photo.
Investigators don't know what happened on board, whether it was a mechanical problem, pilot error, an imbalance in the distribution of the weight or something else. It could take a year to know.
What people in Greenville know is the community has lost nine members of two families - well-respected, civic-minded people.
Dozens of people showed up Tuesday outside the Antonakos house on Montrose Drive. Young or middle-aged, they all said basically the same thing: They couldn't believe their friends were gone.
A guest book had been put on a table outside the ranch-style house and one by one, students from J.L. Mann, Beck Academy and Christ Church Episcopal School signed it, their emotions overflowing. They talked silently. They cried. And they laughed when they remembered the good times.
Less than two miles away, at the McManus home, the mood was somber.
Half a dozen cars sat parked in the driveway and along the cul-de-sac in front of the upscale tan brick home.
Larry McManus, Chris McManus' older brother from Chapel Hill, N.C., had been designated as the family spokesman.
Outside in the driveway, he recalled growing up with his brother in Newberry, where Chris had played football - right guard and right tackle - at Newberry High School.
The brothers were close in age. At the time of his death, Chris was 46. Larry is 47.
Besides playing football Chris had always loved science as a kid, Larry McManus said. But his real love was in the band - his future wife, Stacey. "They had dated since they were 14," McManus said.
After high school, they both went to the College of Charleston. Chris graduated in 1989, his brother said.
"He always wanted to be a doctor," he said. "I think it was really just a desire to help people."
Chris McManus, a radiologist with Greenville Health System at the time of his death, had come to Greenville as part of a pilot program at the hospital for the University of South Carolina Medical School in the early 1990s, his brother said.
Chris McManus was the inspiration behind the Alaska excursion the two families had taken, according to his brother.
TROUBLE IN THE AIR
The Greenville families were flying to a lodge to spend time watching bears.
Their pilot was 42-year-old Walter "Willie" Rediske.
Flying airplanes in the wilds of Alaska is a challenge for even the most experienced pilots, and sooner or later everyone who does it is bound to crash, according to a former Alaskan bush pilot who knew Rediske.
"If you stick around up there long enough, you're going to end up bending some metal, as they say," said Max Conrad, who now lives in Columbia. "It's risky business."
Conrad spent six years in Alaska where he learned to fly and then worked as a pilot, ferrying people and cargo across the state. He flew in and out of the Soldotna Municipal Airport where the crash occurred Sunday morning shortly after take off.
The two families were flying in a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The risks for pilots in Alaska are many, Conrad said.
Runways are short. The terrain is brutal. Weather is unpredictable,.
Take off is the most critical phase of a flight and lots of things can factor into crashes, he said. At the Soldotna airport, if a pilot realizes there is a problem after take off, he doesn't have much space to turn around because of buildings and terrain.
"At that airport, you don't have a lot of options," he said.
Conrad said he knew the pilot and his family. Rediske's family ran an airplane service out of the Soldotna airport, and the pilot had grown up flying airplanes. The family had a reputation for skilled piloting and for never taking shortcuts on airplane maintenance, he said.
"It's a pretty tight community up there," he said. "Everyone kind of knows everybody there."
And the Otter is a popular plane for Alaskan bush pilots, Conrad said.
"It's one of the workhorse airplanes of Alaska," he said.
But Conrad said every pilot he knows who has spent years flying around Alaska has crashed.
He also said bush pilots have a tough time making money. Fuel, airplane parts and insurance are expensive.
Conrad left Alaska for a job that involves less risk. He now flies for a commercial airline.
Reporters Lyn Riddle, Ron Barnett, Liv Osby and David Dykes of the Greenville News and Noelle Phillips of The State contributed.