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Fatal Alaska plane crash delays school starts in Y-K Delta

Ben Anderson
The crash killed pilot Ernie Chase and Anvik elementary school teacher Julia Walker.
Alaska State Troopers photo
Four people survived the crash; all were members of the Evans family.
Alaska State Troopers photo
The survivors were Don Evans, 32 years old, Rosemary Evans, also 32, and their children Donny, 10, and McKenzie, 8.
Alaska State Troopers photo
A Cessna 207 crashed near McGrath on Aug. 13, 2011, killing Anvik schoolteacher Julia Walker and pilot Ernie Chase. A family of four survived the crash.
Alaska State Troopers photo
The cause of the crash is still being determined.
Alaska State Troopers photo
An aerial view of a Cessna 207 that crashed on Aug. 13, 2011.
Alaska State Troopers photo

School was supposed to start Wednesday on Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, but at least four school openings have been delayed as the region deals with a plane crash that killed a longtime teacher from the small community of Anvik, and injured two other teachers who were to begin their first school year in the same village.

Julia Walker, a 52-year-old elementary school teacher at the Blackwell School in Anvik, and Ernie Chase, the 66-year-old pilot of a Cessna 207 in which she was a passenger, were killed in a crash during a flight from McGrath to Anvik. Don and Rosemary Evans -- both 32 and gearing up for their first year in the Iditarod School District -- and their two children Donny, 10, and McKenzie, 8, survived the crash with what were described as "non-life threatening" injuries.

On Sunday night, Iditarod School District officials met to discuss how to proceed with the upcoming school year and decided to postpone classes set to begin Wednesday. According to Helen Mwarey at the Iditarod School District office, at least the four schools from the Yukon side of the district -- in Anvik, Grayling, Holy Cross, and Shageluk -- will be delayed until at least next week as they look at ways to staff schools in the absence of Walker and as the Evanses recover. 

The two new teachers were supposed to jointly teach at the Anvik school, which has only 18 students, including Donny and McKenzie.

School district officials were to meet again on Monday afternoon to discuss the matter further.

NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said Thursday that although an investigation into the crash was still in the very early stages, he had spoken with passenger Don Evans and been able to ascertain a few details. Initial information seemed to indicate that Chase's SPOT radio transmitter -- a personal location device that sends out a distress signal when a button is pressed -- may have been activated before the plane crashed. 

But Johnson said that wasn't the case. According to Johnson, Don saw the SPOT transmitter on the dash of the airplane as he was getting into it in McGrath, and after the plane had crashed, Don found the transmitter and pressed the "911" button that almost immediately relayed GPS information to search and rescue personnel. 

In addition to notifying the International Emergency Response Coordination Center, a 911 signal from the SPOT sent a preset message to two emergency contacts. One of those contacts was Steve Hill, co-owner of Inland Air, the carrier for which Chase was flying. Hill said that he received a text about the 911 after he landed his airplane in Grayling. Hill's aircraft left McGrath at the same time as Chase's aircraft. The latter plane was noted overdue to Anvik around 10 p.m., shortly before the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Anchorage was notified of the signal from the SPOT.

The RCC scrambled the rescue piots and personnel of the Alaska Air National Guard, but because of bad weather they didn't reach the crash site until 11 a.m. Sunday. They were then able to evacuate the survivors and retrieve the bodies of Walker and Chase. The Evanses were taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.

It was unclear what exactly caused the accident, but Johnson said that the NTSB always considers three things when evaluating an accident: "Man, machine, and environment."

"Nothing is being eliminated here. It's a process of elimination," Johnson said. "(But) right now, weather is bubbling to the top."

Hill reported low clouds west of McGrath on the day the airplane crashed, and it appeared that Chase's plane had attempted to turn back toward McGrath, possibly because of bad weather, before it hit a mountainside.

In addition to the SPOT signal, the plane sent a signal to rescuers from a 121.5 megahertz Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), which activated upon impact. The 121.5 frequency is less powerful than the NTSB-recommended 406 MHz transmitter now used in many aircraft, and search and rescue personnel don't regularly monitor the 121.5 frequency anymore. Hill said that after he received the SPOT's 911 notice and checked the location on his computer, however, he was able to confirm the ELT beacon had gone off by contacting other aircraft flying in the area of the crash site.

In March, pilot John Burick crashed on Alaska's Triumvirate Glacier and was stuck in the wilderness for four days due to his plane's lack of a 406 ELT. The antenna for his weaker-signalled 121.5 transmitter was crushed when his plane nosed over on landing. Johnson emphasized the benefits of having the 406 MHz ELT instead of the 121.5 to help rescuers find downed aircraft. The aircraft beacons are designed to go off automatically on impact. The SPOT must be manually activated.

"SPOT is great," Johnson said, "but if it hadn’t been for Don being able to find the SPOT, it could have been much worse."

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com.