Alaska News

Questions about emergency response to Knik Arm plane crash emerge

BETHEL -- The pilot of the Bush plane that crashed in Knik Arm near Anchorage on Thursday night made a cellphone call for help while standing on top of the plane, just as darkness fell and the silt-filled, murky waters rushed in for high tide, Alaska State Troopers said Tuesday evening.

The chain of events is still not clear but it appears there was at least a 9-minute delay – maybe longer – before searchers were dispatched that night.

On Tuesday evening, a spokesman for Alaska State Troopers emailed brief answers to questions posed earlier in the day. But troopers have not directly addressed the gap of time between the 911 call and when rescuers were first sent out.

The family and friends of Seth Fairbanks, the 28-year-old pilot of the Piper PA-18 Super Cub, are grieving his possible death as questions swirl about what happened.

Fairbanks was a loving father of young twin girls but also an adventure-seeker who once escaped from armed militants in Sudan before he was believed to be lost in the waters of Knik Arm. Both Fairbanks and his passenger, 23-year-old Anthony Hooper of McGrath, remain missing.

Troopers for the first time on Tuesday revealed that the call to authorities from the crash site in Knik Arm was received at 11:54 p.m. Thursday night by a troopers dispatcher in Fairbanks.

"The caller stated that he had crashed his plane in the inlet west of Birchwood airport. He said they were standing on top of the plane and needed an airplane or boat immediately," troopers spokesman Timothy DeSpain said in an email Tuesday evening.

The call ended suddenly. The dispatcher didn't have time to get additional details or give any guidance.

Seth Fairbanks' sisters listened to the recording of the call to identify who was speaking, said his father, Grant Fairbanks. An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board needed the authentication.

The after-hours call from a spot between Anchorage and Palmer had been automatically routed to Fairbanks from the troopers' Bethel post. But it shouldn't have gone to Bethel to begin with, according to a municipality of Anchorage technology expert.

"Something didn't work the way it was supposed to," said Trygve Erickson, the city's director of communications and electronics. "It should have gone to Anchorage or Palmer, one or the other. And it didn't. … We know it was a failure."

He was basing his comments on initial media reports that a 911 call went to Bethel police, which turned out to be wrong -- though the call was routed through Bethel.

At 12:03 a.m. Friday, troopers alerted the Alaska National Guard's Rescue Coordination Center on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, according to Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead of the Guard.

That is nine minutes after the call was received by troopers in Fairbanks.

Dangerous waters

Troopers, in an online post last week about the crash, said troopers in Palmer received a report of a downed aircraft at 12:08 a.m. Friday -- 14 minutes after the initial call. Troopers contacted not only the Rescue Coordination Center but also the Anchorage Fire Department, which has a rescue boat.

Troopers didn't answer questions Tuesday evening about the different time references, or the initial reference to the Palmer post rather than the Fairbanks post.

When the Air Guard's rescue center got the call, two C-17s already in the air on a training mission were diverted for the search, Olmstead said in an email. Airmen searched with night vision goggles for two hours that first night, she said.

The Anchorage Fire Department was dispatched at 12:16 a.m. on Friday, said Capt. Blake Lindsoe, who oversees swim and dive rescue crews. The department's rescue boat and two personal watercraft -- akin to Jet Skis -- were on their way to the reported crash area by 12:34 a.m., Lindsoe said.

The fire crews never planned to dive, he said.

"That is a very dangerous water," Lindsoe said. "You could go down there, the water changes – the current – and you could get trapped, get pushed up against something, and you couldn't get back up out of the water."

That night, they kept searching until about 5 a.m. and didn't see any sign of the plane or debris. They don't have night vision goggles. The mission was risky for the smaller watercraft, which can travel in shallow water but aren't equipped for late night darkness, Lindsoe said. They only had hand-held lights.

Fairbanks was a strong swimmer, his father said. A friend of Seth, author Don Rearden – his former basketball coach – said he was an excellent athlete.

But even a fit swimmer would have trouble with the darkness, the strong tide and the silt that fills up clothing and weighs a person down, Lindsoe said.

The high tide around Anchorage of 30.6 feet came at 12:54 a.m. Friday, a surge of more than 28 feet in less than six hours.

The Inlet water is cold, but at this time of year it is not frigid. Fire crews wear thermal underwear under dry suits and use life jackets designed to hold up two people. Rescuers figure they have an hour to save someone.

An adventurous soul

Fairbanks was born and raised in Bethel then moved to McGrath, where he worked as a heavy equipment operator and gold miner, his father said.

Hooper appears to have been an acquaintance catching a plane ride to Anchorage last week, Grant Fairbanks said. Efforts to speak with Hooper's family were unsuccessful Tuesday. His Facebook page shows him in firefighting gear this summer.

Fairbanks had a role in the Discovery Channel's "Yukon Men" reality TV series, and was excited about a getting to work a mining operation for the show, said Rearden, who taught Fairbanks freshman English at Bethel Regional High School and later became his friend.

Fairbanks was a strong person in and out, his father said. Twice he traveled to Sudan to build water wells, volunteering with a doctor, Jill Seaman, who splits her time between Bethel and Sudan. Once, on a trip there with his brother, they were boating from one village to another on the Nile River, taking pictures of the beauty around them.

Then Sudanese rebels captured them at gunpoint, their father said. Fairbanks was wearing an Obama shirt and used the image of the president to explain he was there to do good.

"I told one person if the Sudanese rebels couldn't kill him in Africa, I'm surprised Cook Inlet could," Grant Fairbanks said.

Fairbanks ended up in McGrath. He and a girlfriend had twin girls and while the couple was no longer together, they got along well and shared custody, Grant Fairbanks said. A bank account for the twins called the Ana and Cayla Donation Account has been set up at Wells Fargo.

At 6:10 a.m. Friday, when the tide was low, a crew on an Alaska National Guard helicopter spotted the crashed plane. It was later pulled from the water but the men weren't in it.

Family and friends have been searching by air and on the ground. Rearden said he used binoculars and a spotting scope. The waters rushed by so fast it was hard to keep a floating log in view, he said.

The Alaska National Guard did not coordinate any searches Monday or Tuesday and was assessing the situation, Olmstead said.

A family wedding

It was supposed to have been a celebratory time. One of Seth's sisters had just gotten married at the family homestead on the Holitna River, the same place where Grant married Debbie long ago and where another sister married, too. People came by boat from Bethel and by plane from Anchorage. Fairbanks was there with the twins.

On Thursday, Fairbanks intended to fly down to Anchorage for the in-town wedding reception, Rearden said. Instead, the just-married sister canceled the Friday reception and the family switched to search mode.

The first of several memorial services took place Tuesday in Anchorage. Another is set for 2 p.m. Friday at the Catholic church in Bethel. One will happen later in McGrath.

Fairbanks doted on his twins, his father said.

"I'm sure when he died that was the last thing he thought about, his two little girls."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.