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Village rescuers credited with saving survivors in fatal plane crash

Nathaniel Herz,Devin Kelly,Tegan Hanlon
Alaska State Troopers

Two Western Alaska villages mustered a heroic community response that led to the successful rescue of six passengers from a plane crash Friday that killed four passengers, including the pilot and a 5-month-old baby.

Emergency responders credited local residents and health aides with saving passengers' lives -- finding the wreckage in the darkness outside the village of St. Marys and helping carry the survivors to safety. The single-engine Cessna 208, operated by Hageland Aviation, crashed in conditions described by local residents as foggy and frigid.

"The people on the ground, they're the ones who should get the credit," said Clifton Dalton, a paramedic for LifeMed Alaska, who flew into the village to help evacuate the victims. "They're the reason there are so many people that survived."

A day after the crash, the cause was still unexplained. A National Transportation Safety Board investigator was trying to reach the crash site but bad weather was holding him in Bethel late Saturday, according to Clint Johnson, the chief of the agency's Alaska office.

The investigator will fly out with Alaska State Troopers and a representative from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration at daylight Sunday if weather allows, Johnson said.

Troopers early Saturday identified all 10 passengers on the flight.

Three of the four who died were residents of Mountain Village, a Yukon River village of 850 that's some 25 miles west of St. Marys by road.

They were Rose Polty, 57, Richard Polty, 65, and Wyatt Coffee, 5 months old. The pilot, Terry Hansen, 68, was also killed; friends said he lived in St. Marys.

The six surviving passengers are all from Mountain Village, according to the troopers.

They were the baby's mother, Melanie Coffee, 25, who troopers said also resides in Pilot Station, as well as Kylan Johnson, 14; Pauline Johnson, 37, Garrett Moses, 30, Tanya Lawrence, 35, and Shannon Lawrence, whose age the Troopers did not release.

The survivors were evacuated to Anchorage hospitals. Five of them were reported in fair condition Saturday. The sixth, Tanya Lawrence, was in serious condition, said a spokesperson for Providence Alaska Medical Center.

The plane took off from Bethel at 5:40 p.m. Friday on a regularly scheduled flight to Mountain Village, which was to be followed by a stop in St. Marys, according to Steve Smith, a spokesman for Era Alaska, which owns Hageland Aviation.

An hour later, the airline was told that the plane had crashed near St. Marys without having arrived in Mountain Village. Smith said he did not have any more details about the pilot's route.

"All we know is he left Bethel," Smith said. "He was supposed to go to Mountain Village, and then St. Marys."

'SHE'S THE HERO IN THIS'

First responders in St. Marys, a village of about 500, learned of the crash when one of the passengers, Melanie Coffee, called from a mobile phone to the village's on-call health aide, said Fred Lamont Jr., a village police officer there.

Coffee made the call while giving CPR to her infant son, Wyatt, who died, Lamont said.

Forty to 50 local residents on foot and on snowmobiles began a search for the wreck, which was about four miles from St. Marys near the local landfill.

After heavy fog hindered initial efforts, Coffee eventually left the plane and walked to the landfill -- which some witnesses said was as far as three-quarters of a mile away -- where she found the search party, then showed the way back to the plane, Lamont said.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "She's the hero in this."

According to the passengers, the plane crashed without warning, Lamont said.

"They were just flying over, and next thing they know, they were just falling straight out of the sky," he said. "The plane just dropped."

A stream of residents from St. Marys and Mountain Village made their way to the crash site to help, according to paramedics who flew in from Bethel to evacuate the injured passengers.

"People were just rolling in -- a constant influx of snowmachines, ATVs, trucks," said Paul Garnet, one of the paramedics.

"There were so many people. They were doing everything. There were people clearing pathways through trash to make flat spots for us to walk," he said. "I saw people carrying backboards and litters. I had no idea there was that many backboards in St. Marys."

Some of the passengers were still in the plane when the paramedics arrived at the crash site. The paramedics would not give specific descriptions but Dalton said that the survivors had suffered a range of injuries -- some critical, and some less severe.

The village residents carried each person out on a litter to waiting ambulances and vehicles, Garnet said, in an effort that was chaotic but ultimately effective.

"We had terrain to go over and bushes to go through," he said. "People were carrying and moving as fast as they could, and then setting the patient down, and panting and catching their breath and sweating, and then picking them up as far as they could before that happened again."

'REALLY IN SHOCK'

A day after the crash, residents of Mountain Village -- the plane's original destination -- said they were stunned.

"Everybody's still in shock, really in shock," said Kate Thompson, a Mountain Village resident and member of the Lower Yukon School District school board.

The normally bustling Alaska Commercial Co. general store was quiet, store manager Michael Sturkey said.

"It's taken everybody back a little bit," he said. All the passengers aboard the plane live in the Mountain Village community -- "normal, average, everyday people," he said.

Sturkey knew Richard and Rose Polty through their son, Ryan Polty, who used to work at the general store. The Poltys, who were retired, loved to spend time with their grandchildren, Sturkey said.

Richard Polty used to bring his grandson into the store every day to buy candy.

"That's going to be the sad part," Sturkey said. "That little kid is not going to understand why his grandfather isn't around anymore."

Sturkey was also on first-name terms with Hansen, the pilot, who occasionally brought groceries and freight to the store. As the manager of the village's only general store, Sturkey was familiar with most of the people aboard the flight, he said.

Another St. Marys resident and pilot, Mark Johnson, had gathered with friends and neighbors at Hansen's home Saturday, in line with Yup'ik tradition. It was a time to support each other, Johnson said.

He said Hansen wasn't Yup'ik "but his lifestyle and life and all (his) adopted family were."

Friends described the pilot as quiet, skilled and always helpful. Hansen snowmachined to collect wood in the winter, fished on his boats and skiffs in the summer and recently built a steam house out back.

"He's about the best friend I've got in the world," Johnson said. "He loved the job and enjoyed the people and the lifestyle out in rural Alaska."

Hansen had worked for Hageland Aviation for a little over a year, said Smith, the Era Alaska spokesman. The airline has 132 pilots and about 60 airplanes, he said.

The Cessna that Hansen was piloting did not have a voice recorder, said Johnson, the chief of the Alaska office of the National Transportation Safety Board. But it did have positioning equipment known as Capstone that's likely to provide investigators with data on the plane's path, Johnson said.

His said that NTSB staff had requested the data from the FAA and would investigate whether any radio communication from the plane had been recorded.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ, DEVIN KELLY and TEGAN HANLON
nherz@adn.com