Alaska villagers credited with rescue of plane-crash survivors

  • By Nathaniel Herz, Devin Kelly and Tegan Hanlon Anchorage Daily News
  • Sunday, December 1, 2013 9:21pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two Western Alaska villages mustered a heroic community response that led to the rescue of six passengers from a plane crash Friday that killed four people.

Emergency responders credited local residents and health aides with saving passengers’ lives — finding the wreckage in the darkness outside the village of St. Marys and helping carry the survivors to safety. The single-engine Cessna 208, operated by Hageland Aviation, crashed in conditions described by local residents as foggy and frigid.

“The people on the ground, they’re the ones who should get the credit,” said Clifton Dalton, a paramedic for LifeMed Alaska, who flew into the village to help get the victims to hospitals. “They’re the reason there are so many people that survived.”

The survivors were taken to Anchorage hospitals.

The plane took off from Bethel at 5:40 p.m. Friday on a regularly scheduled flight to Mountain Village, which was to be followed by a stop in St. Marys, according to Steve Smith, a spokesman for Era Alaska, which owns Hageland Aviation.

An hour later, the airline was told that the plane had crashed near St. Marys without having arrived in Mountain Village. Smith said he did not have any more details about the pilot’s route.

“All we know is he left Bethel,” Smith said. “He was supposed to go to Mountain Village, and then St. Marys.”

First responders in St. Marys, a village of about 500, learned of the crash when one of the passengers, Melanie Coffee, called from a mobile phone to the village’s on-call health aide, said Fred Lamont Jr., a village police officer there.

Coffee made the call while giving CPR to her infant son, Wyatt, who died, Lamont said.

Forty to 50 local residents on foot and on snowmobiles began a search for the wreck, which was about four miles from St. Marys near the local landfill.

After heavy fog hindered initial efforts, Coffee eventually left the plane and walked to the landfill-which some witnesses said was as far as three-quarters of a mile away-where she found the search party, then showed the way back to the plane, Lamont said.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “She’s the hero in this.”

According to the passengers, the plane crashed without warning, Lamont said.

“They were just flying over, and next thing they know, they were just falling straight out of the sky,” he said. “The plane just dropped.”

A stream of residents from St. Marys and Mountain Village made their way to the crash site to help, according to paramedics who flew in from Bethel to evacuate the injured passengers.

“People were just rolling in, a constant influx of snow machines, ATVs, trucks,” said Paul Garnet, one of the paramedics.

“There were so many people. They were doing everything. There were people clearing pathways through trash to make flat spots for us to walk,” he said. “I saw people carrying backboards and litters. I had no idea there was that many backboards in St. Marys.”

Some of the passengers were still in the plane when the paramedics arrived at the crash site. The paramedics would not give specific descriptions but Dalton said that the survivors had suffered a range of injuries: some critical and some less severe.

The village residents carried each person out on a litter to waiting ambulances and vehicles, Garnet said, in an effort that was chaotic but ultimately effective.

“We had terrain to go over and bushes to go through,” he said. “People were carrying and moving as fast as they could, and then setting the patient down, and panting and catching their breath and sweating, and then picking them up as far as they could before that happened again.”

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&Copy;2013 Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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