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Search for answers begins in plane crash that killed 4 in Southwest Alaska

Laurel Andrews
Alaska State Troopers

The community of Mountain Village, devastated by a plane crash that left four dead and six others injured on Friday, is reeling from the scale of the tragedy, the village's vice mayor said Sunday. Meanwhile, investigators have arrived in the Western Alaska village of St. Marys -- 20 miles to the east -- to examine the site of the crash, and the survivors, all in Anchorage hospitals, were reported to be in fair or good condition on Sunday afternoon. 

Mountain Village is "just in shock" following the accident, vice mayor Peter Andrews said. “We never would have imagined that something so drastic as this would happen.”

“Everybody in Mountain Village knows the people that were injured or died,” he said. Three of those killed in the crash were from Mountain Village: Rose, 57, and Richard Polty, 65, and Wyatt Coffee, 5 months, who was sitting on his mother’s lap when the plane went down. Bethel pilot Terry Hansen, 68, also perished.

The devastation has hit the Polty family especially hard, as the death of Rose and Richard Polty has left kids without their parents in “a moment’s notice, without any warning,” Andrews said. The Poltys left behind four children, all of whom are grown adults, and a number of grandchildren, he said. 

For now, the community is monitoring the condition of survivors, and praying for the families to heal during the time of tragedy. Mountain Village is “going day-to-day with issues as they come in,” he said.

Some good news was delivered Sunday from Anchorage hospitals, with reports that the survivors were all in either fair or good condition. Tonya Lawrence, 35, who had been listed in serious condition on Saturday, was in fair condition Sunday, said Ginger Houghton, spokeswoman for Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. Another survivor, 14-year-old Kylan Johnson, had been listed in fair condition on Saturday but was upgraded to good condition Sunday morning.

Pauline Johnson, 37, Shannon Lawrence, Garrett Moses, 35, and Melanie Coffee, 25, were all in fair condition Sunday. All of the survivors are from Mountain Village, a community of roughly 800 people in Southwest Alaska.

Also on Sunday, investigators arrived on-scene to begin inspecting the site of the crash. Rough weather had been hindering attempts to access the crash site, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson Clint Johnson said, but NTSB investigator Chris Shaver and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector arrived in St. Marys on Sunday afternoon following weather delays that had prevented them from flying out of Bethel on Saturday.

Cause still unknown

Village Public Safety Officer James Sartelle was on scene in St. Marys on Sunday morning, “protecting the integrity of the crash site,” he said. Sartelle was called in to duty following the crash.

Sartelle had flown with pilot Terry Hansen several times before. 

“He was a great guy,” Sartelle said of Hansen. “He was professional.”

Andrews remembered Hansen as a friendly, helpful person who had flown in the community for many years. “If anyone needs assistance, he’s there to help them,” Andrews said.

The crash occurred around 6:30 p.m. Friday. The Cessna 208, operated by Hageland Aviation, was performing a scheduled run from Bethel to St. Marys. The plane was also scheduled to land in Mountain Village before heading to St. Marys, Johnson said, but it ended up bypassing the stop and heading instead for its final destination. “We don’t understand exactly” why the plane didn’t land in Mountain Village, Johnson said.

Upon arriving in St. Marys, the plane flew past the airport and turned right, Johnson said, crashing about four miles southeast of the landing strip. The cause of the crash was not yet known, Johnson said.

A dark night

Andrews was on-scene with his son-in-law following the crash. The two had traveled to St. Marys upon hearing there was an accident.

They stopped north of the airport, where witnesses on snow machines described seeing a bright light not far from the runway.

Andrews’ son-in-law called his sister Rose Polty. Tonya Lawrence answered the phone instead, and told them that the plane had crashed by the dump.

“So we told everybody” where the plane had crashed, about a mile away, Andrews said. Melanie Coffee had also called to the local clinic in Mountain Village to tell them about the crash, he added.

The location of the crash, about 500 feet west of the dump, was a “very big factor” in the survival of those on board, Andrews said. Since the crash was near the community's road system, it allowed for the ambulance and community members to reach the accident and safely move survivors away from the wreckage. Had the plane crashed across the Yukon River, accessing the wreckage would have been far more difficult.

LifeMed responders, health aides, troopers and community members from both Mountain Village and St. Marys were already at the site when he arrived, he said, around 40 or 50 people total. He remembers the scene as being a dark night, and he wasn’t able to see where they were going. Once they made it to the crash, they began “loading up stretchers as fast as we (could),” Andrews said.

He said they would have been short-handed without the help of community members from St. Marys, who brought enough stretchers to get all those in the accident safely moved away from the wreckage.

The plane was also equipped with a “state-of-the-art” emergency locator transmitter, which provided exact coordinates of the crash to responders, Clint Johnson said. 

By the time LifeMed responders arrived on-scene, at least 50 people had already gathered at the site of the wreckage, LifeMed Alaska's spokeswoman Cheryl Zernia told Alaska Dispatch on Saturday. Health aides from both St. Marys and Mountain Village were performing life-saving measures on the six survivors.

LifeMed responders drove to the dump and then hiked a half-mile to the crash site. “They said when they arrived it was very emotional,” Zernia said. “It was a disaster. It looked like the entire village was there, and many of them were helping.”

All surviving passengers were transported more than 400 miles to Anchorage for treatment. Injuries included multiple fractures and head injuries “consistent with a plane (crash) involving fatalities,” she said.

Era Alaska issued a statement on Saturday on behalf of the president of Hageland Air, Jim Hickerson.

“Hageland is working to gather information to answer questions and do what we can to ease the suffering of those involved in the accident," the statement said. "As a family-owned business this is an unspeakable tragedy for us.”

The community is not planning any funeral services at the moment, Andrews said. The families are “taking whatever steps they need to do” to bring the deceased home and have the services in the community.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Laurel_Andrews