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After plane crash in Lynn Canal, good decisions and good fortune saved all aboard, pilot says

  • Author: Karen Garcia
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 18, 2015

HAINES -- The pilot of a four-passenger plane that crashed into Lynn Canal on Nov. 4 said the survival of those on board hinged not on one person or decision, but on a series of fortuitous actions and reactions.

"I am convinced that God had a hand in saving us," Mike Mackowiak said last week from Seattle's Harborview Medical Center. "There are too many things that, so easily moved just a fraction, we would have all been dead."

Mackowiak, 56, wife Martha, 51, son Nik, 17, and family friend Victoria Hansen, 17, hadn't planned on flying from Juneau to Haines that Wednesday.

Martha, Nik and Victoria were returning from visiting colleges in the Lower 48 and were going to take the 2 p.m. ferry back to Haines, but Mike told them since the weather was good, he could pick them up in his Cessna 180 and get them back to town faster.

With Mike and Nik in the front and Martha and Victoria in back, the group took off around 1:15 p.m. Near Eldred Rock, an island about 30 miles south of Haines, the plane's engine died.

"We lost power in the engine. The propeller continued to turn, but there was no power," Mackowiak said.

He started looking for a place to land. He also tried to restart the engine but abandoned that effort for the sake of time and altitude. "You don't want to monkey around too long hoping and dreaming."

Determining he couldn't make it to Eldred Rock, he turned south and started scanning the east shore of the canal.

Calling the shoreline there a "beach" is a misnomer, he said. It's steep, vertical terrain made up of large rocks. "It's boulders the size of cars," he said.

A former EMT with Wilderness First Responder training, Mackowiak knew to look for an area with geographic features that attract the human eye. That way, rescue crews would have a better chance of spotting the group.

Mackowiak sent out a mayday call, picked up by an Alaska Seaplanes pilot. The pilot confirmed he received the mayday and understood where Mackowiak was trying to land.

"I didn't focus on panic or what the outcome would be or things like that. I focused on the best option I could find," he said.

Deciding against the steep, rocky terrain, Mackowiak put the plane down in the water. "I set it down in water as close to land as we could so we would have a chance to swim, but at the same time, not so close that if I lost control of the plane we would slam into the rocks."

He made sure the plane's doors were open and that everyone had hold of their seatbelts, ready to make a quick exit, he said.

No one had time to put on life jackets, which were in the back of the plane, Mackowiak said. "There was a lot going on. It's a private airplane, so it's not like you have life vests underneath your seat."

The plane hit the water going between 70 and 90 mph, he estimated. The plane's bush tires allowed the craft to skip along the water for "a long ways," but when the plane sank low enough, the tires caught the water, flipping the plane.

All four escaped from the interior -- Mackowiak said he believes everyone went out the front left door -- and ended up on the wing. "They didn't think about it. They didn't talk about it. They knew what they had to do and they did it."

When it became obvious the plane was sinking, they started swimming for the shore, about 150 yards away.

The water temperature was 40 to 45 degrees. The waves were 5 feet high, the air temperature was about 35 degrees and the wind blew at about 20 knots, he said.

"Victoria and Nik made it to the beach first, and I wasn't sure I was going to make it," Mackowiak said. "So Nik got back in the water and grabbed my collar and pulled me in."

Nik got Mackowiak to where he was able to stand in the water. When Mackowiak looked back at Martha, she was about 30 feet from shore and appeared to be doing okay.

"She had her head above water at that time and she was getting close to the beach, but within two or three waves, her head was under water," he said.

Nik went back in and pulled his unconscious mother to shore in much the same way he brought in Mackowiak. The trio then dragged her over to large boulders to get her out of the surf and performed CPR, reviving her.

Mackowiak estimated they were in the water about 15 minutes.

Three planes passed the four survivors, who sat cold and wet in the wind, waiting for rescue. An Alaska Seaplanes Cessna Caravan flew by, low and slow, its pilot looking for the group.

Mackowiak said the acknowledgement by the Seaplanes pilot that he had heard the mayday was critical during the wait.

"It was really important to me having heard the Alaska Seaplanes pilot respond to my mayday and indicate he had heard me and he knew where we were. That was key," he said.

Around 3 p.m., a TEMSCO helicopter spotted Victoria and then the other three survivors. Mackowiak said he believes the pilot was able to spot them more easily because they put down by a geographical anomaly on the coast that gillnetters know as "The Slide," where a scree slope forms a small delta.

The helicopter turned sharply and landed within the rocks, a maneuver that Mackowiak said amazed him.

At that point, Martha was conscious, coherent and lucid, but it was clear she needed immediate medical help. The helicopter's co-pilot got out and helped the group load her into the chopper, then flew directly to Juneau's Bartlett Regional Hospital.

A Coast Guard helicopter took Mackowiak, Nik and Victoria to Juneau International Airport, where they were met by emergency medical crews and taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital and soon released.

At Bartlett, Martha's core temperature dropped to between 73 and 76 degrees, and she went into cardiac arrest, Mackowiak said. The volunteer fire department medical crew, which had stuck around, performed CPR and resuscitated her again, he said.

Martha was stabilized and transported to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center around 3:30 a.m. Thursday. She had swallowed enough salt water to swell her stomach and intestines, but surgery at Bartlett Regional Hospital relieved pressure on her internal organs, including her lungs and heart.

By Sunday, Martha was off the ventilator. On Tuesday, she was released from the intensive care unit and transferred to acute care. She has started to walk, though Mackowiak said she is very tired.

"The medical staff is just amazed at her recovery rate," he said. "The main doctor is flabbergasted."

The potential for infection still remains, and Martha remains on an antibiotic regimen to stave off this possibility, Mackowiak said. "Basically, it's like she has a severe chest cold right now and we just need to be careful with her."

It's unclear when his wife will be able to return to Haines, but Mackowiak said he is hopeful that, barring setbacks, she might be out of the hospital by the end of the week.

"People ask me, 'How long are you going to be there?' (and) 'How is she doing?' and it's hard to say because her recovery is progressive at this point," he added.

Mackowiak stressed that the outcome of the accident and his wife's recovery could not be attributed to one person in the plane, one helicopter pilot, one doctor, one decision or one action.

"What I really want people to know is there really is no hero in this story. What is important is that people realize that everyone who was involved did their role and they did it with excellence," he said. "There are lots of places where this could have completely come unraveled and had a much more depressing outcome."

This article first appeared in the Chilkat Valley News and is reprinted here with permission of the writer and CVN.

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