When LifeMed responders reached the site of a fatal plane crash outside the western Alaska village of St. Marys Friday night, people from that community and nearby Mountain Village had already gathered at the site of the wreckage. Health aides from both villages were performing life-saving measures on the six survivors. Four other passengers died in the crash.
The Hageland Aviation flight bound for Mountain Village and St. Marys with 10 people aboard crashed just four miles from the latter village, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesperson.
Mountain Village residents Rose, 57, and Richard Polty, 65; Wyatt Coffee, 5 months; and pilot Terry Hansen, 68, of Bethel all perished, Alaska State Troopers confirmed. Pauline, 37, and Kylan Johnson, 14; Tonya, 35, and Shannon Lawrence, Garrett Moses, 35, and Melanie Coffee, 25, survived the crash and were being treated Saturday at an Anchorage hospital. They are also from Mountain Village, though troopers listed Melanie Coffee from Pilot Station and Mountain Village.
Kylan Johnson, Lawrence and Moses were listed in fair condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center. Tonya Lawrence was listed in serious condition. The two remaining survivors are not on any of Anchorage's three major hospital's patient registries, though they may have chosen to remove their names.
St. Marys is located about 24 miles east of Mountain Village. The communities have strong ties, with large families residing in both, residents said.
Hageland Aviation, which is owned by Era Alaska, was informed at 6:34 p.m. that the Cessna 208 had crashed, according a company press release.
"Hageland Aviation Services and our employees send our thoughts and prayers to the loved ones of those who died and were injured in the plane crash near St. Marys last night. Hageland is working to gather information to answer questions and do what we can to ease the suffering of those involved in the accident," said company President Jim Hickerson in a prepared statement.
NTSB investigators Chris Shaver and Bryce Banning are enroute to Bethel, NTSB spokesperson Clint Johnson said Saturday.
Sgt. Matt Hightower in Bethel said troopers and village public safety officers were providing security to the crash site late Saturday. Weather was preventing additional troopers from escorting the investigators to St. Marys, he said.
LifeMed Alaska spokeswoman Cheryl Zernia said when the company's Bethel-based responders arrived on scene, at least 50 villagers and health aides from St. Marys and Mountain Village were already there, as well as two troopers.
The crash site is near the community dump, and 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 438 miles to Anchorage for treatment. Injuries included multiple fractures and head injuries "consistent with a plane (crash) involving fatalities," she said.
In most situations, injured individuals in western Alaska are flown to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital in Bethel, but all of the survivors' injuries warranted transport to Alaska's largest city, Zernia said.
Villagers and responders carried the passengers back to LifeMed's vehicle and flew them in pairs to Anchorage. Two passengers in the worst condition were medevaced first to Bethel then to Anchorage by Learjet.
"We performed multiple simultaneous transports of all the victims, which is something that we're set up to do, but something that we don't do very often," Zernia said.
St. Marys resident Melvin Paukan was working at the airport when he got a call from his supervisor reporting that a plane had crashed nearly an hour earlier. At about 7:30 p.m., a medevac arrived at the airport in foggy conditions, he said.
The pilots had called about five miles out, saying they couldn't see runway lights. They flew as close as a mile-and-a-half away before the tarmac became visible, said Paukan, a state Department of Transportation employee. About an hour later, they took off for Bethel, he said.
John Thompson, Jr., a station manager for Ryan Air, made his way toward the dump in hopes of helping. By the time he arrived, two survivors had been carried away from the crash site.
He offered to help carry other survivors on stretchers when someone ran out of strength.
Unintentionally, he caught a glimpse of one of the survivors, a woman, when she was lowered to the ground. Her face was bloodied, but she was calm and aware, he said.
It was too dark to see the wreckage in the distance. The plane fortunately never caught fire.
"People were just doing what they had to do. What anyone would do in that situation," Thompson, Jr. said.