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Airmen pulled victims free from Anchorage plane crash

  • Author: Joshua Saul
  • Updated: June 30, 2016
  • Published June 9, 2010
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Anchorage Police Department photos

The Air National Guard sent out a well-written account of the crash and its immediate aftermath, along with the actions of a Guardsman and an active-duty airman that helped to save the lives of four of the plane's passengers.

It was written by Airmen 1st Class Christopher Gross, in the Guard's public affairs department. Here it is.

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska - An Alaska Air National Guardsman and active-duty Airman from Elmendorf Air Force Base jumped into action and put themselves in harm's way June 1 while rescuing survivors from a Cessna 206 plane crash.

A plane that took off shortly after 5 p.m. from Merrill Field went down moments later into the side of a Fairview building, injuring four people and killing one.

"I could hear an aircraft coming over the top of me," said Capt. Erik Boltman of the Alaska Air National Guard, who was sitting in traffic a few blocks over from the crash site. "Next thing I knew I just heard this really loud thud, and my truck shook."

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Gross)
Capt. Erik Boltman, an air weapons officer with the 176th Air Control Squadron, Alaska Air National Guard, works as a combat air traffic controller at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska June 7, 2010.
Captain Boltman said he could see smoke coming from the front of the aircraft and tracked it by where everybody was looking. Once he located the aircraft and parked his vehicle he immediately grabbed a fire extinguisher from his vehicle and rushed over to the site.

He said people were already there attempting to bust out windows and using fire extinguishers to keep the fire that was spreading on the floor of the plane under control.

They were finally able to pull the door off the hinges with the pilot and father, 34 year-old Preston Cavner, still inside the door window when they carried it away. The pilot was covered in blood from colliding with the dashboard during impact, said the captain.

While they were pulling the pilot out, Captain Boltman said he could hear the girls inside screaming "the fire is coming the fire is coming, it's burning my feet."

As they were pulling the pilot a safe distance away from the plane, more bystanders rushed to the scene. Staff Sgt. Jacob Gibson was one of those people who rushed in to take action.

plane-crash-guard2-6-9-10Sergeant Gibson was on his way home taking a different route than normal. He left the Government Hill Gate on this day and headed downtown merging onto 6th Avenue.

"I never ever go that way, we usually head out Boniface because it takes us down to Northern Lights," said Sergeant Gibson. "I was sitting in traffic downtown at a stop light kicking myself (because I thought I would have beaten traffic.) About that time I saw a cop three lanes over in the far left lane, he cut on his lights and started to fight to try and get through traffic and then I saw people pointing."

When Sergeant Gibson saw the black clouds of smoke bellowing out of the aircraft he said he immediately pulled in behind a gas station, not knowing what had happened. As he was running around the fence he saw the crash and ran to the burning plane.

When he got inside the plane he saw 16 year-old Rachel Zientek in one of the back seats. He moved the seatbelt out of the way and pulled her out handing her off to a group of people, two of whom were Captain Boltman and Anchorage Police Officer Will Cameron. They took the 16 year-old girl to safety while Sergeant Gibson went back to try and to free the mother, 32 year-old Stacie Cavner, who was sandwiched between the front seat and the dashboard.

plane-crash-guard3-6-9-10"I grabbed up underneath her arms and was trying to pull her free, the flames were all around her and there were about two people with fire extinguishers," said Sergeant Gibson. "I couldn't physically pull her out (because) she was pinned so bad, and (then) this green mushroom cloud came out and it hit me and the cop behind me. I dropped to the ground and I rolled out of the way so the cop could get in there."

Officer Cameron stepped in and attempted to pull her out the same way Sergeant Gibson had, he blindly felt inside to feel what the restriction was and tried cutting it till the fire singed him enough that he dropped his knife, that's when he planted both feet on the aircraft and heaved the 32 year-old mother out to safety.

"I think that needed to happen, because five seconds after he did, (the plane) mushroomed into flames (and) cleared everyone out of there," said Sergeant Gibson.

Once everyone that could be saved was pulled to safety, they began treating them until professional medical care arrived.

Sergeant Gibson said a lady had aluminum blankets and started passing them out to cover the wounds of the burned victims. That's when he wrapped the legs of the 16 year-old girl and began talking to her trying to keep her calm.

The crash left the father, mother, 2 year-old son, Hudson, and the 16 year-old girl alive, most with severe burns. Tragically, 4 year-old son, Miles, was killed on impact.

Days after the crash, the Airmen described what was going through their minds while they were responding.

"Adrenaline. Fear. It's like seeing your worst fear in the world. Being trapped in an airplane and it's on fire," said Captain Boltman. "I'm glad we got everyone out in time that could be saved."

Sergeant Gibson said there wasn't too much going through his mind, he saw what was going on and things because focused, "there is a fire, get people out."

Rachel Zientek's father, Mike, said he would like to thank Sergeant Gibson, Captain Boltman, Officer Cameron, the Anchorage Police Department and emergency responders for everything that they did to save his daughter's life and the lives of those who survived.

"I just can't' thank them enough for what they did, they saved my daughter's life. The way they quickly responded, time was definitely a factor and I just really appreciate the way Staff Sgt. Gibson and (Officer) Will Cameron went into the plane and pulled out my daughter, I just really appreciate that." said Mr. Mike Zientek. "I'm just so thankful that she's alive and the injuries we can deal with."

Not even a week before this incident, Sergeant Gibson was involved in another in Girdwood, Alaska, about an hour from Anchorage.

As he and his wife, Jessi, were coming back from some kayaking, they decided to stop at a local Girdwood bakery.

At the bakery he overheard a girl outside giving directions and he had an internal instinct that something was wrong.

So he rushed outside to find out what was going on when the girl had told him a man in the back had a heart attack. Sergeant Gibson ran to where the man was and immediately started CPR.

He said a policeman came in at the same time he did and pulled out an Automated External Defibrillator, and began attending to the victim. Once EMTs arrived, they helped move the victim to the kitchen and continued treatment.

Sergeant Gibson and the policeman performed chest compressions between shocks for 45 minutes straight, life flight arrived on scene and tried to help as well, but they said there was nothing else that we could have done, they were unable to get a steady pulse for life-flight transport.

"Physical stuff always heals, but it's learning to live with memories, that's when it doesn't matter if you're in the plane, standing by or getting fire extinguishers. You're always second guessing, until you learn to live with it," said Sergeant Gibson.

While stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, Sergeant Gibson was a volunteer for Pennington County's Search and Rescue team. That experience served him well during these recent events.

For the four years Sergeant Gibson's wife, Jessi, has known him, she said he has always been there when help was needed.

"I wish I could be more like that," said Jessi. "He'll help anybody."

Preston and Stacie Cavner are being treated at a hospital in Oregon. Rachel Zientek is recovering at a hospital in Washington.

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