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Aviation

3 killed when float plane with 10 aboard crashes in Southwest Alaska

A float plane with 10 people aboard crashed on takeoff from a small lake in the Southwest Alaska town of Iliamna before sunrise Tuesday morning, killing three passengers, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and Alaska State Troopers.

NTSB spokesman Clint Johnson said the de Havilland DHC-3T Turbine Otter owned and operated by Rainbow King Lodge was departing East Wind Lake.

"They were headed to a fishing site from there," Johnson said. "There were guests, there were guides and there were obviously the crew on board."

Troopers identified those killed as Tony W. DeGroot, 80, of Hanford, Calif., James P. Fletcher, 70, of Clovis, Calif., and James Specter, 69, of Shavertown, Penn. Their next of kin have been notified. Troopers are still working to confirm the names of survivors, the agency said in an online update.

NTSB investigator Millicent Hoidal said five of the seven survivors were in serious to critical condition. Two others sustained only minor injuries and were able to walk away.

The only visible sign of the crash from the Iliamna Airport on Tuesday afternoon was a wing of the plane sticking up between thickets of birch and spruce trees on private property just north of the airfield.

The plane departed Iliamna at approximately 6 a.m., leaving in the darkness to head out for a day of fishing, Hoidal said. The plane ended up in the trees at one end of the lake, the NTSB's Johnson said.

Community responders were already on the scene when Iliamna-based Alaska State Trooper Joseph Minnick arrived soon after troopers got the call around 6:30 a.m. The community quickly pulled together, he said. About 30 people came out in the early morning hours to help injured passengers. Local health aides triaged the injured.

Minnick said all the patients had been transported to Anchorage by noon. He said many residents in the small community of about 110 people were upset and struggling to deal with the aftermath, but worked together.

The bodies of the three men who died were flown to the State Medical Examiner's Office in Anchorage for autopsies.

DeGroot was an innovative, well-known dairyman who owned and ran the DeGroot Dairy, according to the Fresno Bee. Fletcher was a periodontist in Fresno. Specter was a dentist in Shavertown.

DeGroot emigrated from the Netherlands in 1956 and began his dairy operation in a rented facility before buying his own land, the Bee said. A 2012 article in the Progressive Dairyman said the family farm was milking 4,500 cows.

The home of Iliamna's Myrtle Anelon -- the closest to the crash site -- became a gathering spot for family and community. The driveway was packed with 15 to 20 vehicles during the morning rescue effort. The small village has no ambulances, so injured passengers were taken in private vehicles to the clinic.

Around 6:15 a.m. Tuesday, Kirsty Coghill -- Anelon's granddaughter -- heard the dogs barking. An employee of Rainbow King Lodge was at the door.

"He just explained that there was just a crash and that he needs all the light that he can (get)," Coghill said. The family rounded up all their flashlights and shined vehicle headlights across the tundra. They could catch a glimpse of the lights on a plane wing, she said.

She walked to the site and found an orderly mess.

"The passengers were laid out, to check them and get them ready to go on the stretchers," she said. Her aunt, Sue Anelon, a former longtime community health aide, helped direct residents, she said. People were calm but for her it was an intense and unfamiliar situation, said Coghill, 26, who works as manager of IDC General Store.

"I was scared, nervous but I knew that I couldn't show that I was," she said.

She helped pack out one man on a stretcher over tundra, brush and two creeks, then rode with him in a van to the clinic. She tried to keep him still and comfortable on the bumpy gravel road.

"He was freezing, so I decided to hold his hands to warm him up," Coghill said. "He said it was nice to hold someone's hand."

She said she wanted to send prayers to the families who lost a loved one, and for speedy recovery of the injured.

An Air Guard HC-130 rescue plane had landed in Iliamna by 10:30 a.m. with medics on board to treat the survivors and provide transport to Anchorage, according to Alaska Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton.

Hoidal arrived in Iliamna on Tuesday afternoon, where she and another NTSB investigator, along with an FAA investigator, will work on the on-scene examination Wednesday.

Hoidal, who was able to inspect the site Tuesday, said the plane crashed approximately 100 yards from the edge of the lake. She said there was no initial indication of the cause.

The crash happened before sunrise, and before civil twilight, or first light.

Whether darkness was a factor will be part of the investigation, Johnson said.

"The investigative team is going to be looking at daylight conditions, the weather conditions, the conditions on the lake. There are a whole host of things right now," he said. "That just happens to be one of them."

Hoidal said she did not know what the weather conditions were when the plane departed, but it was gray and cloudy in Iliamna on Tuesday afternoon, with intermittent rain and temperatures hovering in the low 50s. A Federal Aviation Administration webcam at the Iliamna airport showed rainy weather with heavy, low overcast late Tuesday morning.

The pilot, who has not yet been identified, was operating under visual flight rules, not instrument flight rules, said Allen Kenitzer, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration. Generally, "VFR pilots may fly at night as long as there is good visibility," he said in an email.

Under the visual rules, a pilot flying at night must have visibility for 3 "statute" miles.

Rainbow King Lodge is a major, longtime fishing operation in the Iliamna area, said Lisa Reimers, chief executive officer of Iliamna Development Corp. Rainbow King is respected in the region, said Coghill, Reimers' daughter. On its website, Fly Water Travel calls the lodge "a large, easy to reach luxury operation that has rich history in the region."

A fellow lodge owner in the area, Brian Kraft, called Rainbow King "a good operator."

"We are competitive but we are all in the game together," Kraft said. "The last thing we want to see is something like this happening."

The lodge took its own website and Facebook page down on Tuesday after the crash.

A man who answered the phone at Rainbow King Lodge on Tuesday afternoon said the management was not making any statements. All information would have to come from troopers, he said before hanging up

De Havilland Otters, with their relatively large passenger capacity and a reputation as a workhorse aircraft in rural Alaska, have been involved in some of Alaska's deadliest plane crashes in recent years. Still, Otters are one of the most popular planes in rural Alaska.

"That airplane is kind of the backbone of the Bush fleet," Johnson said.

Former Sen.Ted Stevens and four other people died in the August 2010 crash of an Otter near a Dillingham fishing lodge. Four passengers survived.

An Otter operated by Rediske Air carrying 10 people, including two families of tourists from South Carolina, crashed on takeoff in July 2013, killing everyone on board.

In June, an Otter operated by Promech Air crashed during a flight in Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan. Eight people on a shore excursion from the Holland America Line cruise ship Westerdam were killed in the crash, along with their pilot.

Tuesday marked the second time a plane operated by Rainbow King Lodge crashed with multiple fatalities; the first one happened 22 years ago.

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