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Grieving for young couple, victims of Alaska's most recent fatal plane crash

Sean Doogan
Jessi Nelsen (left) and Rob Lilly (right) pose for a picture just before takeoff on Saturday. Their Cessna 150L crashed minutes later at Merrill Field, killing the couple. Aug. 24, 2013 Courtesy Nelsen Family

A sunny Saturday offered respite from what has been an otherwise rainy August in Anchorage, but that break from the dreary would soon be over, its ending signaled by the sickening crunch of a small plane hitting the ground. George LaMoureaux, a local car salesman, found himself unexpectedly vaulting into the air. LaMoureaux had to squint into the sunshine as he clambered over a 6-foot-tall fence topped with barbed wire.

LaMoureaux had just seen a small plane crash at Merrill Field, one of the nation’s busiest small-plane airports, and was running to the wreckage to help. Despite frantic efforts, he was unable to extricate the two passengers, -- 27-year-old Jessi Nelsen of Anchorage and her boyfriend, 31-year-old Big Lake pilot Robert Lilly -- both of whom died in the Cessna 150’s nose-first crash.

Crash investigators said Lilly was attempting to land when he crashed at Merrill Field, a 634-acre patch of airstrips and taxiways, parked small planes and helicopters, one mile east of downtown Anchorage. The National Transportation Safety Board said as the plane came in for a landing, the air traffic control tower told it to go around again. The plane was climbing and banking south when witnesses said its engine went silent, and it quickly plunged straight into the ground.

The two deaths brought Alaska’s aviation death toll to 24, so far, this year. The NTSB is investigating the accident and may eventually figure out what happened on Saturday. Wreckage and the plane’s instruments will be analyzed and inventoried, details will be noted, coordinates calculated, and numbers crunched in an effort to explain what caused the crash.

As condolences flowed into Anchorage, and Seward from friends and family across the state, a number is perhaps the last thing that anyone will ever think of when they remember the duo.

Nelsen was a student, part-time longshoreman, aspiring journalist, and music director for the ever-growing Seward Music Festival.  Lilly was a newly licensed commercial pilot flying on Kodiak Island. Their young lives were cut short, but their memories will live on.

One such memento: a picture Nelsen sent to her parents in Seward, just minutes before the Saturday crash. It shows Nelsen, and Lilly smiling as they are about to taxi down the Merrill Field runway. It was the last text Nelsen would ever send. Friends said they were always smiling. That smile is how Nelsen’s father said he will always remember his daughter.

“I got a call from the hospital the other day. They said Jessi was an organ donor and wanted permission to use some of her organs to help someone else live. My daughter was always helping others live a better life,” said Mike Nelsen, Jessi’s father.

Most of the state’s plane crashes are in rural, or uninhabited places, where it can take hours or even days to locate the wreckage and help the survivors, if there are any.  But the Saturday crash happened almost in the middle of Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, just feet from several businesses.

Merrill Field was the state’s first real airstrip, built in the late 1930’s. It remains a place where small planes come and go, landing within sight of the majesty of the Chugach Mountains.

Alaska Sales and service, a sprawling car dealership along Fifth Avenue, borders the airstrip. The hum of aircraft permeates the neighborhood, but it was a sudden silence that caught people’s attention on Saturday. That’s when George LaMoureax was standing outside, talking to a customer.

'Before I knew it'

“Bart, my customer, pointed to the sky and said, ‘Look at that plane, its engine just cut out’,” LaMoureaux said Monday.  I looked up to see a flash of its white wings as it plunged straight down.”

A huge thud followed, and Lamoureaux and his customer ran for a nearby truck.

“We drove about 500 feet to the fence (surrounding Merrill Field) and I hopped out, and before I knew it, I was over the fence, running towards the plane,” LaMoureaux said

“The plane was crumpled, with the engine smashed in, and tail broken.  I could see a small fire starting near the front,” LaMoureaux said. That’s when he saw Lilly, the plane’s pilot, unmoving and tangled in the wreckage.

“I tried to push on the wings to open up the cockpit, but no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get him free,” he said.

As LaMoureaux jostled the wreckage, a woman fell from the back of the plane, onto the pilot.

“I could see she was strapped in, but neither she nor the pilot were moving or making any noise,” LaMoureaux said.

The fire, now working its way into the mangled cockpit, caught LaMoureaux’s attention again, just as two people were running toward him.

“Get some fire extinguishers. I need fire extinguishers,” he yelled.

As Anchorage Police began to show up, LaMoureaux said he had just doused the flames, with three fire extinguishers people had brought to him, taken from nearby parked aircraft.

“They began CPR on both people, but I could tell they didn’t make it,” LaMoureaux said.

“I just wish I could have done more. I did everything I could think of, but it wasn’t enough,” he said.

On Monday, Lamoureax was back at work. A small bandage on his right hand covered some cuts he got when jumping the airport fence, but the cuts were superficial. The events of a few days ago made a deeper scar on the 57 year old.

“(Jessi’s) family called me to thank me for trying to help their daughter.  The only thing I could say to them to ease burden, was that I don’t think she suffered. I think they (Nelsen and Lilly) died, almost instantly,” LaMoureax said.

Love story with a musical heart

“Rob loved to fly. Jessi loved to fly with Rob,” Jessi Nelsen’s father said from his home in Seward on Monday.

Nelsen and Lilly met at the Seward Music festival a few years ago.  Lilly was the drummer in a band, “The Goat Rodeo” that played the three-day music fair.

“She was instantly smitten with Rob,” said friend Jessica Bishop, who grew up with Nelsen and worked with her on the annual music fair. Until that day, Nelsen had proudly showed off an arm tattoo that read, “spinster.” 

“That changed when she met Rob,” said Nelsen’s father.

Rob was an aspiring pilot from Big Lake. He just received his commercial pilot’s license and was preparing to leave for a job in Kodiak, when he and Nelsen were killed. Rob always wore black.

“He was the man in black. As a matter-of-fact, until I read it today, I didn’t know his last name, we just called him, ‘Black Rob,’” said Bishop. A love of Johnny Cash, and a quirky sense of humor soon endeared Lilly to Nelsen’s close circle of friends and family in Seward and Anchorage.

“I love him,” said Nelsen’s father, as the family struggled, Monday, to prepare a memorial service for their daughter.

Nelsen returned to her hometown of Seward each Thursday. Her family said it would meet her for milkshakes after she checked-in with the local longshorman’s union. Nelsen often spent her Friday working on the docks of Seward, loading and unloading the stream of cruise ships that stop at the small town, 127 miles south of Anchorage. During the weekdays, Nelsen was a journalism student at UAA. But music was in her soul.

Nelsen also wrote part-time for the Anchorage Press and F Zine Magazine. She was responsible for picking and convincing an array of bands to perform in Seward each fall. The Seward Music and Arts Festival will take place in a few weeks, from September 27-29. The headline act, “The Builders and the Butchers” and all the other bands that will perform there were chosen by Nelsen. 

“If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have anybody playing,” said Gail Burnard, the festivals’ director.  Burnard added that this year’s festival will be held in Nelsen’s honor.

“Closing Time” a song, written and performed by the band Semisonic perhaps best sums up the life, death and memory of Nelsen and Lilly.

“From every new beginning, comes some other beginning’s end,” the song goes.

For Nelsen and Lilly, the end was Saturday, August 24.  The new beginning will start on Sept. 27, with the first note strummed at the Seward Music Festival – just weeks after what would have been Nelsen’s 28th birthday.  As friends, family, and an Anchorage car salesman reflect on Nelsen and Lilly, it is likely that the couple, even in death, will inspire more new beginnings in the Last Frontier.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com