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Pilot dies in Southeast Alaska plane crash; 4 survivors airlifted

A single-engine commuter plane on a short flight between Juneau and Hoonah crashed Friday afternoon, killing the 45-year-old pilot. The plane's four passengers survived, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Troopers identified the pilot of Wings of Alaska Flight 202 as Fariah Peterson of Birmingham, Alabama. Her family described her as brilliant, outgoing and determined to fly.

"I can remember when we would ride the school bus she would pretend that we were flying and she would be the pilot," said Michelle Ramsey, Peterson's 48-year-old sister, in a phone interview from Alabama.

Peterson piloted the Cessna 207 that crashed into rugged terrain north of Point Howard, about 18 miles west of Juneau. The cause of the crash remained under investigation late Friday, troopers said.

Troopers identified the plane's four passengers as Humberto Hernandez-Aponte, 57, and his wife, Sandra Herrera Lopez, 60, both of Juneau; Jose Vazquez, 15, of Puerto Rico; and Ernestine Hanlon-Abel, 64, of Hoonah.

At 1:26 p.m., Juneau 911 dispatchers got a call from one of the passengers who said "they had just been involved in a plane crash," according to a statement from the Juneau Police Department.

"The name of the 911 caller matched the name of one of the people listed on the missing plane," said the statement. The call came in two minutes after the plane was due to arrive in Hoonah.

Three helicopters carrying volunteers from Juneau Mountain Rescue flew to the area of the crash and ground crews found the downed plane at about 1,300 feet above sea level, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

By 6:30 p.m., rescue crews had lifted three of the survivors into a helicopter. Troopers said the first three people out of the crash area were Hernandez-Aponte, Lopez and Vazquez. DeVuyst reported about an hour later that a fourth person with "extensive injuries" had been lifted into a helicopter. Troopers identified this person as Hanlon-Abel.

All four were taken to Juneau for treatment, DeVuyst said.

Bartlett Regional Hospital said in a statement that two of the survivors were in stable condition, one was in critical condition and one was in serious condition.

"Arrangements are being made for medical evacuation of the latter two patients," the statement said.

Around 8 p.m. the Coast Guard sent a statement saying a search team found the fifth person dead.

"Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the victims following this tragic event," said Cmdr. Patrick Hilbert, deputy commander, Coast Guard Sector Juneau, in the statement.

Jonathon Peterson, the nephew of the pilot, described his aunt, Fariah Peterson, as amazing. "I bet she did something heroic to save everyone onboard but herself,” he said.

Her sister, Michelle Ramsey, said Peterson grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated from Auburn University with a business degree, later earning her master’s degree from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. More than a decade ago, she graduated from flight school in Michigan, Ramsey said.

“She was just a loving person,” Ramsey said. “She loved doing what she was doing, and we’re very grateful that she saved the lives of those passengers. We’re praying that all of them heal and recover.”

Peterson had two sisters and two brothers, Ramsey said, as well as many nephews and nieces. She arrived in Juneau this summer and was scheduled to fly in Alaska until September before transferring to Tennessee, Ramsey said.

On Friday evening, Treana White, 24, waited at Barlett Regional Hospital in Juneau to hear about her grandmother, Hanlon-Abel. Hanlon-Abel lived in Hoonah, but was in Juneau this week to take care of her mother. She flies between the two communities frequently, White said.

“It was pretty heartbreaking to hear about, but once we figured out that she was OK, it was huge relief,” White said.

A nurse told the family Friday evening that Hanlon-Abel knew her birthday and her husband’s phone number, White said.

“She’s pretty strong,” she said.

A National Transportation Safety Board investigator was traveling to Juneau from Anchorage on Friday evening, said the board's Alaska chief, Clint Johnson.

The investigator, Chris Shaver, was planning to meet with troopers when he arrived at the airport Friday night. Weather permitting, he will travel to the crash site Saturday, Johnson said.

Hoonah City Council member Mary Erickson said early Friday evening that she and others in Hoonah were following the news of the crash on social media and news websites. She described Hoonah, a largely Tlingit town of about 800, as tight-knit.

"In one way or another everyone is related," she said. "It’s mostly local people that travel back and forth."

Hoonah is 40 air miles west of Juneau. A spokeswoman for Wings of Alaska said in an email that the Cessna took off from Juneau at 1:06 p.m. and had been scheduled to complete the short hop to Hoonah by 1:24 p.m.

“The aircraft is known to be in rugged terrain, and rescue teams were dispatched immediately,” the airline spokeswoman said.

In messages posted to Twitter on Friday afternoon, Wings of Alaska said it “regrets to confirm that flight number 202 from Juneau, Alaska, to Hoonah, Alaska, has been involved in an accident.” The company said friends and family of the passengers can call 407-362-0632.

In the area of the crash, the National Weather Service reported rain, fog and reduced visibility Friday afternoon, with cloud ceilings down to 400 feet.

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Mayor Ken Skaflestad of Hoonah said Friday afternoon that the news of the crash had shocked Hoonah, whose residents depend on planes or the ferry service to travel out of the town on Chichagof Island.

"It's accepted for us in the Bush that we are flying around and there are risks," Skaflestad said. "We are certainly thoughtful about all of the people onboard and those affected by it."

Skaflestad said the town was anxious as it waited for more information.

"The whole town has one ear to the telegraph to see what they can find out," Skaflestad said. "We're just devastated to hear about a plane crash anywhere, let alone one bound for Hoonah."

He said Wings of Alaska is one of two airlines flying between Hoonah and Juneau.

Wings of Alaska is owned by SeaPort Airlines Inc. of Portland, Oregon. Its president since 2007 is Rob McKinney of Oregon, a pilot. The company also operates in Oregon, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas and California, according to a posting by McKinney on LinkedIn.

Reporter Pat Forgey contributed to this story.

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