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5 ‘hero’ teens first on scene in Aniak plane crash rescue effort

The pilot of an Alaska Division of Forestry Aero Commander 500 Shrike that crashed into water near Aniak on Thursday afternoon, May 28, 2020, was hospitalized with serious injuries, officials said. Three firefighter passengers also were injured. (Alaska Department of Public Safety)

Five teenagers were the first to begin rescue efforts for four state Division of Forestry employees whose plane had crashed into a large pond in a gravel pit near the Western Alaska community of Aniak on Thursday afternoon.

The Aniak teens had been out driving in a truck and recreating on a four-wheeler in the large gravel pit area several miles from the village. They were headed home when they spotted the yellow Aero Commander 500 Shrike aircraft in the water, according to an Alaska Division of Forestry statement.

Inside the plane were three emergency firefighters — Albert Simon and Craig Friday of Hooper Bay and Kelly Kehlenbach of Aniak — as well as pilot Mark Jordan of Eagle River. Three of the four were seriously injured when the plane crashed shortly after refueling and taking off from the Aniak airport.

Dylan Nicholson, 13; Trevor Morgan, 17; Mason Dallmann, 17; A.J. Simeon, 19; and Skye Morgan, 18, all Aniak residents, spotted Friday and Kehlenbach climbing out of the plane and ran into the water to help, the Division of Forestry said.

The teens helped the two firefighters out of the water, which was about 4 to 5 feet deep around the plane, according to the Division of Forestry.

Nicholson called his aunt, a dispatcher for Alaska State Troopers in Aniak, and reported the crash. Morgan and others drove Friday and Kehlenbach to a nearby clinic.

The water was freezing cold and diesel fuel and oil were spilling from the aircraft engine, said Ricky Ciletti, an Alaska Department of Transportation employee who arrived as some of the teens drove Friday and Kehlenbach away.

But pilot Jordan and firefighter Simon were still trapped in the water, too injured to leave the plane. So Dallmann, 17, waded out to the plane, according to his mother.

“He stayed with them, made sure they were hanging on to the wing without falling off,” Julia Simeon said of her son. “He wouldn’t leave their side."

One man was injured badly and kept grabbing onto Dallmann, who reassured him and said, “I’m not going to leave you,” according to Simeon.

Workers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp.’s Aniak clinic soon arrived and began working with Ciletti to extract Simon and Jordan from the plane, Ciletti said.

Troopers who arrived took the injured men to shore by boat. Medics transported Jordan in an ambulance and Ciletti took Simon to the clinic in the back of his truck.

Dallmann was in the water for about 30 minutes — waiting for help and assisting with the rescue — and he inadvertently swallowed some of the fuel-laced water, Simeon said.

Simeon had been napping after a long day at work when a phone call from her other son alerted her to the plane crash. Later, Dallmann, shivering and nauseated, recounted the rescue efforts to her.

“I am proud of him and all the boys — all the kids that were down there helping,” Simeon said.

Aniak residents flocked to the gravel pit to help once they heard of the crash, Ciletti said. At one point, Ciletti borrowed a four-wheeler from the 17-year-old Morgan to go retrieve backboards that he and the medics could use to carry Jordan and Simon. The rescue quickly became a community effort, he said.

But the teenagers who were there first are the ones who deserve the credit, Ciletti said.

“They are the heroes. These kids were in water. These kids called for the help,” said City Council member David Mattson, who had been working nearby and later came to the scene of the rescue.

The plane had been transporting the emergency firefighters to McGrath, where they would then be sent on assignment for wildfire responses in the Kenai/Kodiak area forestry station in Soldotna, according to the Alaska Division of Forestry.

As of Friday, three of the people injured in the crash were still hospitalized with serious but not life-threatening injuries, according to the Division of Forestry.

The pilot, Jordan, was flown to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, where he was in fair condition Friday morning, a hospital spokesman said. The passengers were flown to the Alaska Native Medical Center on Thursday.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which happened just after 4 p.m. Thursday.

The plane lost power in both engines before the crash, according to NTSB Alaska chief Clint Johnson. An initial report on the investigation’s findings should be released in about two weeks, he said.

On Friday a recovery team, including divers, were working to retrieve the plane, according to the Division of Forestry. It will then be taken to the Aniak airport and flown to Anchorage in a C-130 cargo plane.

State Forestry Director Chris Maisch in a statement Friday expressed gratitude to local and state first responders and civilians who helped in the rescue.

“I want to especially thank the young men and woman that played a key role in quickly requesting additional assistance and their personal efforts to help our employees injured in the incident," Maisch said. "I’m certain their actions were key to the outcome and I can only imagine that their presence in the water and on shore brought great comfort to Mark and Albert as they were waiting for additional help.”

City leaders are working find a way to publicly recognize the teens’ actions, said City Council member Mattson.

“Cold water, diesel fuel in the pond — and they just jumped in without any question,” he said.

“It made me very proud of the Aniak community to know that we have the kids, the young adults in our community who are willing to step up and help when it’s needed,” said Aniak Mayor Erica Kameroff. “They really did save some lives yesterday and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said City Council member David Mattson aided with the rescue. He was at the scene of the rescue but was not part of the rescue effort.

Reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.

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