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Search ends in George Inlet: Two missing passengers recovered, raising total number of fatalities to 6
People gather outside of PeachHealth Ketchikan Medical Center on Tuesday for a vigil for those involved in Monday’s floatplane collision near Ketchikan. Photo by Hall Anderson

By Daily News Staff

Searchers on Tuesday located two passengers who had been missing since Monday afternoon’s mid-air collision between two floatplanes at George Inlet.

Both individuals were deceased, raising the total number of fatalities resulting from the incident to six. Ten of the 16 people involved survived.

Preliminary details about the incident itself were made public by a representative of the National Transportation Safety Board during a press conference Tuesday afternoon at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.

The accident was a focus of activity in Ketchikan on Tuesday, with federal officials and outside media arriving in town while the search continued in the area where the planes went down.

Then, at about 4:30 p.m., a Coast Guard helicopter spotted two bodies on land less than one-half mile southwest of where one of the planes — a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver — had crashed near Mahoney Creek. The Coast Guard crew then directed the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad to that location, according to Lt. Brian Dykens, a Coast Guard public affairs officer.

The remains were recovered early Tuesday evening, according to information from the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

As of Tuesday night, three of the surviving passengers had been released from PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, while another three remained at the hospital in fair condition, according to a Tuesday evening email from Mischa Chernick, KMC manager of marketing and communications.

Four passengers who’d been medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Monday with rib, pelvis, arm and spine injuries, remained there as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Susan Gregg, director of media relations for Harborview. Three of the patients were in satisfactory condition. The fourth was in serious condition in Intensive Care Unit.

As of Tuesday evening, the names of the pilots and passengers of the planes had not been released by official sources. However, a Coast Guard press release stated that the nationalities of the people from both planes are 14 Americans, one Canadian and one Australian.

At a press conference earlier in the afternoon Tuesday, NTSB representatives shared their preliminary findings on the accident.

"Here's what we know," said NTSB member Jennifer Homendy. "Two air tour operations were involved in a midair collision at about 12:21 p.m."

The planes were traveling in an uncontrolled airspace, meaning they were not required to have contact with the tower, according to NTSB Investigator In Charge Aaron Sauer.

Both planes were inbound to Ketchikan.

"One plane was in a southwest heading and the other plane was in a west-southwest heading," said Homendy.

Preliminary data showed that the de Havilland DHC 3T Otter operated by Taquan Air was traveling at 126 knots —145 mph — at an elevation of about 3,800 feet.

The Beaver operated by Mountain Air Service was traveling at 106 knots — 122 mph — between 3,200 and 3,300 feet.

The Otter descended from about 3,800 feet to between 3,200 and 3,300 feet.

"The two planes converged between 3,200 and 3,300 feet on the west side of the George Inlet," said Homendy.

She stressed that this was preliminary data.

"We'll have on the ground, 14 people from NTSB," said Homendy, "including three from our Alaska regional office, which is based in Anchorage."

As of the 3:30 press conference, she said 11 NTSB members were on scene, with three on the way. The NTSB representatives will conduct interviews with the surviving passengers, as well as the pilot of the Taquan aircraft. As part of their investigations they also will be looking at flight plans, maintenance records for both aircraft, terrain and weather conditions.

"We do know that there were no cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders on either of these planes and neither of the planes were required by regulation to have them," said Homendy.

She expects investigators to be on scene five to seven days.

"We will not be determining the probable cause of the accident in that timeframe, nor will we speculate on the cause," Homendy said.

The recovery efforts will begin Wednesday, according to Sauer. "There is a company here in town now that does a lot of recovery work here in the state of Alaska. He's assembling teams of divers as well, as there is some wreckage located well under the water's surface, so he is assembling his recovery team, as well along with barges and so forth."

All of the passengers aboard the planes were visiting Ketchikan while on a cruise aboard the Royal Princess, which is on a voyage from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Anchorage.

The Otter had 10 passengers and one pilot on board. All but one person on the Otter survived the accident.

A Taquan Air press statement released Monday evening described the situation as devastating and said “our hearts go out to our passengers and their families.

“At this time, we are in the midst of an active crisis response, and our focus is on assisting these passengers, the pilot, our staff, their families and loved ones, and first responders,” stated the announcement, adding that Taquan Air had suspended all scheduled flights.

The Beaver carried one pilot and four passengers. None survived.

Mountain Air Service spokesman Paul Slenkamp contacted the Daily News on Tuesday to provide a brief statement.

“Mountain Air Service’s single aircraft, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, was involved in a mid-air collision near Ketchikan, Alaska,” he said. “All souls in the aircraft perished. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends. Please be considerate of this small, family owned business. All operations have been canceled.”

The Ketchikan borough and city mayors both shared statements through a borough email Tuesday night.

“Our community is heartbroken over this tragedy and its devastating impact on so many families," said Borough Mayor Dave Landis. "There has been a tremendous outpouring of compassion and support from everywhere in the community, and we offer sincere gratitude to all those who are responding to the crashes.”

City Mayor Bob Sivertsen said “we extend our heartfelt appreciation to the first responders and good Samaritans during this tragic event.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out those who have lost loved ones,” he said. “We are mourning with you.”

Members of media outlets from Alaska, the Lower 48 and Canada were in Ketchikan to cover the incident.

 Some attended an 11 a.m. press conference at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, where KMC Medical Director Peter Rice said a total of 10 patients from the incident were brought to the medical center starting at 2 p.m. Monday.

Rice said the patients were triaged, categorized by degree of injury, and evaluated by physical exam, imaging and CT scanning.

“Then, decisions were made on whether to treat them here, or to make further stabilization and medevac them to Harborview Medical Center,” Rice said.

Four people were medevaced to Harborview, a level one regional trauma center.

Rice said there were plenty of medical personnel present at KMC to handle the influx of patients. A total of seven physicians, including ER physicians and surgeons, were present, in addition to many other caregivers.

“So we had plenty of support,” he said

Rice added that he wanted to “personally thank our responding physicians and caregivers for the incredible job they did in responding to this tragic accident.”

Starting around noon Tuesday, people began to gather in the sprinking rain outside of the medical center along Tongass Avenue for a vigil for the people involved in the floatplane accident.

Around 200 people, among them hospital staff members, local officials and residents, stood on the sidewalk around the corner of the patient care wing, embracing each other, holding hands and praying.

Among those offering prayer was the Rev. Pat Travers of Holy Name Catholic Church.

 “For those also who have been injured, those at our hospital, those who have been medevaced we pray that you might bring them healing and comfort and that they and their families may grow in the appreciation of your love,” Travers said.  

Later Tuesday afternoon, officials from the Coast Guard, Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad, NTSB and South Tongass Volunteer Fire Department, spoke during a series of press conferences organized by the borough at the Ted Ferry Civic Center. Also participating in the press conferences were Landis, Sivertsen and Russell Thomas, who’s affiliated with the George Inlet Lodge where most of the survivors were brought initially after their rescue on Monday afternoon.

A Coast Guard press release said the search and rescue process involved the Coast Guard, partner agencies, and good Samaritans that "conducted surface and air searches, operating around the clock for more than 27 hours, concentrated in an area of 93 square nautical miles."

Jerry Kiffer of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad said about 16 KVRS members helped in the search process along with other agencies until about 10 p.m. Monday. KVRS resumed searching around 6 a.m. Tuesday with 12 people, not including two divers and a dog team.

Daily News writers Sam Allen and Scott Bowlen contributed to this story.