What started out to be a routine scheduled flight ended in tragedy on Friday, when a commuter plane with ten people aboard crashed in the remote southwest Alaska wilderness.
It had been dark for almost an hour by 5:40 p.m. in Bethel when the Cessna 208B Caravan operated by Hageland Aviation as Flight 1453, took off on its daily scheduled flight to Mountain Village, about 120 miles away. The plane never made it. It crashed on frozen tundra about four miles west of St. Mary’s, 16 miles short of its destination.
The Weather Channel reported that the weather at the time of the crash was freezing rain, with only one mile visibility and a ceiling of 300 feet. It is not yet known if the bad weather was a factor in the accident.
As reported by ABC10 News, the four people killed included the pilot, Terry Hansen, 68, of St. Mary’s. It is reported that eight of the nine passengers on board were from Mountain Village, an Alaska Native settlement of about 850 people located on the north shore of the Yukon River. Mountain Village, as well as Bethel and St. Mary’s, are located in southwest Alaska in the 19 million acre Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
Passengers killed in the crash were grandparents Richard Polty, a retired commercial fisherman, and his wife Rose Polty. Wyatt Coffee, a 5 month-old infant also died in the crash. Wyatt’s mother, Melanie Coffee, 25, survived the crash, as did Pauline Johnson, 37, Kylan Johnson, 14, Tanya Lawrence, 35, and Garrett Moses, 30. All were from Mountain Village. Shannon Lawrence was also on board and survived. All the survivors were seriously injured and flown out to Anchorage area hospitals, 400 miles from the crash site.
According to the Los Angeles Times, more deaths would likely have occurred if not for the courageous actions of Melanie Coffee. Most of the survivors had leg and other serious injuries, but Melanie was able to walk out in the darkness to find help in the 12 degree freezing fog. She managed to find the search party and guide them back to the wreckage. Dozens of searchers then carried the survivors out to safety, and cared for them until paramedics arrived.
NTSB investigators were able to reach the scene on Sunday and are looking into the cause of the crash
The Cessna 208 series is a single engine turboprop aircraft and a popular commuter plane and freight hauler. Over 1,000 Cessna 208 aircraft have been built since the first flight in 1982. The Cessna 208B involved in this crash was built in 1998.
Hageland Aviation is a part of Era Alaska, a charter operator that was made famous in the Discovery Channel documentary series “Flying Wild Alaska,” according to Flying magazine. The magazine pointed out that this documentary dramatizes the dangers of flying in the hostile Alaska environment, where pilots often fly under low overcast ceilings and poor visibility to reach villages that are not accessible by roads.
Commuter flights such as the one that crashed are routine in remote areas of Alaska, and are often flown in bad weather. There are few roads in the 19 million acres of wilderness where Bethel, St. Mary’s and Mountain Village are located. Because of this lack of roads, aircraft have become the cars and trucks that haul passengers and freight. They have become the life blood of communication and interchange in rural Alaska-all the more reason why great care should be taken when flying in Alaska.