Alaska float plane collision death toll rises to 6, including 1 Canadian

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Alaska float plane collision death toll rises to 6, including 1 Canadian

by - 5 min read

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At least one Canadian was among the six people killed in the mid-air collision of two sightseeing planes over open water in Alaska on Monday. 

“Our thoughts and sympathies are with the family and loved ones of the Canadian citizen who died in Alaska,” Guillaume Bérubé, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in a statement Tuesday. 

“Canadian consular officials in Seattle are in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and stand ready to provide consular assistance as required,” he said. “To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further details on this case cannot be released.”

There were 16 people aboard the planes — 14 passengers and two pilots. U.S. Coast Guard officials say they were 14 Americans, one Canadian and one Australian.

The Coast Guard confirmed in an email Tuesday evening that two people who were listed as missing have been found dead, making a total of six fatalities.

“This is definitely a difficult case for all involved, and at least there can be some sense of closure for the families and friends of the victims,” Chief Petty Officer Matthew Schofield wrote.

The other 10 people on the planes were injured.

Planes were heading to Ketchikan

U.S. federal investigators who were in Alaska Tuesday to try to find out why the planes collided revealed some preliminary findings in their investigation.

One of the aircraft was a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver with five people aboard, and the other a de Havilland Otter DHC-3 carrying 11, Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson Allen Kenitzer said.

The Ketchikan-based operator of the Otter, Taquan Air, said its pilot and nine of the 10 passengers were rescued and receiving medical attention. That group was returning from a sightseeing tour of Misty Fjords when the crash occurred, Taquan said.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said investigators have requested flight tracking data and want to talk to the surviving pilot, passengers, plus the float plane owners and other witnesses. (CBC)

Jennifer Homendy, a member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, identified Mountain Air Service as the owner of the smaller plane. CBC News phoned the company Tuesday evening but no one answered.

Homendy said early indications were that both planes were heading back to Ketchikan when they collided at approximately 975 to 1,000 metres in altitude. The Taquan plane, she added, appeared to be descending.

Neither of the single-engine planes was under air traffic control when they collided, Kenitzer said.

Homnedy said the NTSB would look at many possible factors during its investigation, including pilot training, medical issues, flight plans, aircraft maintenance, flight conditions, and weather.

She added that neither plane had cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders and neither was required to have them.

The two aircraft went down over water about 40 to 48 kilometres northeast of Ketchikan, according to coast guard Petty Officer Jon-Paul Rios.

Ten people were injured, he said. They were initially taken to a hospital in Ketchikan. Four were later transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, suffering various broken bones, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.

A U.S. coast guard helicopter crew hovers while searching for survivors of the collision near George Inlet on Monday. (Courtesy photo by Ryan Sinkey/U.S. Coast Guard)

The water temperature off Ketchikan on Tuesday was 9 C (48 F), according to the National Weather Service. Expected survival time in 4 to 10 C water is one to three hours, according to the United States Search and Rescue Task Force website.

Tuesday’s search for the two missing passengers, who were later confirmed to be among the dead, involved a coast guard helicopter, a flotilla of boats, and teams from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ketchikan Fire Department and other rescue units, Schofield said.

‘Deeply saddened’: cruise operator

All 14 passengers on both float planes were from the cruise ship Royal Princess, which was on a seven-day trip from Vancouver to Anchorage and operated by Princess Cruises.

Princess Cruises issued a statement saying it was “deeply saddened to report this news, and our thoughts and prayers are with those who lost their lives and the families of those impacted by today’s accident.”

Betty Hill, a passenger currently on the Royal Princess from California, said the news was announced to cruise passengers around 6:30 p.m. Monday.

Ketchikan is approximately 770 kilometres north of Vancouver. (CBC)

“The room turned completely silent. The response was somber. It was a very sad day,” Hill said.  “My hopes and prayers that they find the missing person[s] and the injured make a speedy and complete recovery.”

Princess Cruises says the ship departed Ketchikan approximately 3.5 hours late and was scheduled to arrive in Juneau at approximately 9 a.m.

A coast guard boat searches for survivors in George Inlet near Ketchikan on Monday. The 2 missing people were found deceased on Tuesday, officials said. (Courtesy photo from Ryan Sinkey/U.S. Coast Guard )

The crash site, at Coon Cove about 480 kilometres south of Alaska’s capital Juneau, lies near a tourist lodge that runs excursions to the nearby Misty Fjords National Monument.

Community rattled

Mayor David Landis of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough — the local county-equivalent authority — made himself available to offer his condolences to the families of the victims and thank first responders.

“This tragedy has touched many of us significantly,” Landis said.

A float plane soars over a cruise ship moored in Ketchikan. Some are concerned that Monday’s tragic collision between 2 planes will damage the town’s reputation as a safe destination for tourists. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

The local tourism authority said that in 2018 alone, over 1.1 million people visited the town, providing critical economic lifeblood.

“We’ve had a variety of industries in this community, starting with mining, then salmon canning then timber. They’ve all gone by the wayside,” resident Dave Kiffer said. “Tourism’s crucial.”

Kiffer, a former float plane pilot himself, guessed about 20 per cent of those tourists visit Misty Fjords and float plane flights let them take it all in.

U.S. Coast Guard response boats drift through George Inlet as part of the search effort on Tuesday near Ketchikan. (Dustin Safranek/Ketchikan Daily News via AP)

He explained that the float plane industry has focused on safety in recent decades and that progress makes this incident even more shocking. His concern is this calamity will have tourists questioning the industry’s progress.

“It’s not like the old days when I flew many years ago. As a pilot, you might be flying into a cloud bank with a plastic map on your chest and you’re kinda looking around and you have no idea,” he said.

“The reality is dozens of planes fly out there every day and something like this almost never happens anymore.”

He paused a beat after uttering those words.

“Obviously, it happened two days ago.”

This story originally appeared on CBC

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