Investigators on Sunday began examining the wreckage of a downed Hageland Aviation flight, hoping to learn what caused the Cessna to crash on frozen tundra near the village of St. Marys Friday, killing four and injuring six.
The crash killed the pilot, a retired couple and a 5-month-old baby and left the Yukon River community of Mountain Village, where most of the victims came from, in mourning.
A National Transportation Safety Board investigator and an Alaska State Trooper reached the wreckage, located about four miles west of St. Marys, at about 11 a.m. on Sunday, after being delayed due to ice and fog, said Clint Johnson, the head of the NTSB's Anchorage office.
Investigator Chris Shaver spent most of the day Sunday taking photos of the plane and examining things like the position of controls and engine settings, Johnson said.
The weather was frigid and windy and the work painstaking, he said.
Little is known about the exact conditions of the crash, including the angle the plane went down at and whether reported bad weather played a role, said Johnson.
Another NSTB investigator in Anchorage will interview survivors and check maintenance records provided by Era Alaska, Hageland Aviation's owner.
The crash of the single-engine Cessna 208 is the most recent in an exceedingly deadly year for plane crashes in Alaska.
A search of the National Transportation Safety Board's accident database shows that 31 people have died in aviation accidents in the state during 2013.
Friday's crash brings the number to 35.
By comparison, the database lists a total of 11 deaths for the year 2012.
"The sheer number of accidents went down last fiscal year," said Clint Johnson, the head of the NTSB's Anchorage office. "But the number of fatalities was up remarkably from last year."
Investigators aren't sure why.
"Obviously we look toward trends," he said. "And there's no common denominator."
Meanwhile, friends and relatives of the crash victims were trickling into Mountain Village Sunday, said Michael Sturkey, the manager of the Alaska Commercial Co. general store.
"The planes weren't flying yesterday," he said. "We still had that nasty ice fog."
All of the 10 people onboard the plane, except for the pilot Terry Hansen, 68, were from the village of about 750 people. Friends said Hansen lived in St. Marys.
People in Mountain Village are "heartbroken," over the losses, he said, but mostly quiet about it.
"That's the way people handle and process things out here," Sturkey said.
The six survivors of the crash were recovering from injuries at Anchorage hospitals Sunday.
Family members of pilot Terry Hansen and the infant killed in the crash, Wyatt Coffee, didn't respond to calls Sunday.
Two of the victims, Richard and Rose Polty, 65 and 57, were doting grandparents who were thinking about moving to Fairbanks to be close to family, said their daughter Rainee Polty in a phone interview from her home in Fairbanks.
Her couple had three children, she said.
Richard Polty was a retired commercial fisherman who still tried to "go hooking" for fish whenever he could, said Rose's sister, Mary Polty in a phone interview from her home in Pilot Station. Both loved bingo.
Mary Polty said she last talked to her sister on Thanksgiving, the day before the crash.
The couple had traveled to Anchorage, where Rose Polty was being treated for cancer.
At a medical appointment, the couple got positive news.
"She went on a follow-up and the doctor told her everything was good," Mary Polty said.
The couple said they'd be having a turkey dinner at a sister's house and then making their way home to Mountain Village.
The crash happened the next day, Mary Polty said.
"I had a phone call from my niece, she called me and told me about it. After that I had I don't know how many phone calls."
In a few days Polty will catch a flight to Mountain Village for the funeral, a necessity in this roadless region of Alaska.
The thought of flying has never worried her more, she said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS