NTSB: Witnesses to fatal St. Marys crash saw plane flying low

Casey Grove

Just before the plane crash last month in western Alaska that killed four people and injured six, witnesses on the ground saw the Cessna 208 fly low over the St. Marys airport and out of view.

The witnesses were so concerned about the single-engine passenger plane's low altitude and the direction it was flying that they tried to radio the pilot. There was no response.

Those new details, from an ongoing investigation into the crash's cause, come from a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report published online late Monday. Investigators with the NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration have spent the days since the crash poring over the wreckage and interviewing witnesses, including the recovering survivors.

According to the FAA, the mishap was the third in 2013 for Hageland Aviation Services, which is owned by Era Alaska. Killed in the crash were pilot Terry Hansen, 68, and passengers Rose Polty, 57; Richard Polty, 65; and Wyatt Coffee, 5 months old.

According to the NTSB report, the flight took off from Bethel about 5:40 p.m. Nov. 29 with plans to land in Mountain Village first, then St. Marys. But the weather was growing worse and the flight was operating under visual flight rules, meaning the pilot was not allowed to head into conditions in which he could not see. The plane was diverted to St. Marys, the NTSB report says.

"Witnesses on the ground at St. Marys reported seeing the airplane fly over the airport at low altitude, traveling in a southeasterly direction. They continued to watch the airplane travel away from the airport, until its rotating beacon disappeared," the report says. "Being concerned about the direction and altitude the airplane was flying, the witnesses attempted to contact the pilot on the radio, with no response."

Moments later, the pilot of another airplane reported an emergency locator transmitter signaling the crash somewhere in the St. Marys area, the report says.

Villagers scrambled to get to the crash site along with Alaska State Troopers amid freezing rain and a low cloud ceiling, a troopers spokeswoman said. One of the survivors, Melanie Coffee, had left the plane wreckage after trying unsuccessfully to resuscitate her baby and helped guide the rescuers through fog to the other survivors, according to a village police officer.

They found the plane about an hour after it crashed, roughly one mile southeast of St. Marys. Hansen, the pilot, and two passengers died at the crash site, and another passenger died after making it to a village clinic, the NTSB said.

Melanie Coffee, 25, and fellow survivors Kylan Johnson, 14; Pauline Johnson, 37; Garrett Moses, 30; Tanya Lawrence, 35; and Shannon Lawrence were flown to Anchorage for medical treatment. All were either released from medical care or listed in fair condition several days later.

The investigation into a specific cause for the crash continues.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4343. Twitter updates: twitter.com/kcgrove.