FREELAND — Less than 24 hours after a seaplane crashed in Mutiny Bay west of Whidbey Island, the active search for survivors was suspended Monday afternoon.
One passenger, a female, had been found dead.
Nine other passengers remained unaccounted for. At least one of those on board was a child.
Next of kin have been notified. The U.S. Coast Guard planned to release the names of passengers Tuesday morning.
Marine and air crews from local and national agencies responded around 3 p.m. Sunday to reports of the propeller plane crash near Freeland, authorities said. The plane, a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter, was traveling from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to Renton Municipal Airport at the southern tip of Lake Washington, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The last radar trace showed the plane at about 700 feet above Mutiny Bay at 3:09 p.m., according to the flight-tracking service FlightRadar24. Data showed the plane went into a steep descent of 7,744 feet per minute.
Scott Giard, a Coast Guard spokesperson, said crews scoured the water and Whidbey Island beaches for survivors, while evaluating the chances of survival.
“It’s a tough decision we have to make,” he said. “It’s not something we make very easily. We put a lot of effort and thought into these decisions and our hearts are hanging very low.”
The Coast Guard has been coordinating with about 50 family members of the passengers.
Coast Guard crews covered more than 2,100 nautical square miles in their search, the agency said Monday. By early Monday afternoon, crews had retrieved a few “six- to eight-foot” pieces of aluminum, a seat and some personal items.
The pieces of evidence were to be transferred from the Island County Sheriff’s Office to the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB announced Monday that a team of seven investigators was responding to the crash scene.
No distress signal went off during the flight, Giard said. Around the time of the crash, the visibility was 10 miles, he said.
The owner of Northwest Seaplanes, the charter company operating the flight, reported they saw the plane veer toward Port Townsend. Then they lost radio contact, Giard told The Daily Herald.
Northwest Seaplanes posted a statement on Facebook Monday afternoon.
“The team at Northwest Seaplanes is heartbroken,” the post said. “We don’t know any details yet regarding the cause of the accident.”
The plane had apparently been flying under visual flight rules, according to FlightRadar24. In the minutes before the crash, the plane was flying at 800 to 900 feet.
The plane could have plunged from 150 to 200 feet into Mutiny Bay, Giard said. But it’s unclear if it exploded on impact or sank.
Jeff Brenny, 63, was walking on the beach about 3 miles from the crash when he heard what sounded like an “explosion.” He has lived on Whidbey Island for six years and said he sees seaplanes flying over head “all the time.”
“This is a sad day for everyone,” Brenny said Monday. “Some people have their flag at half-staff.”
Red dahlias and golden sunflowers floated along the shore Monday afternoon at Frank D. Robinson Beach, where neighbors released handfuls into the saltwater in honor of the missing passengers.
Some witnesses reported seeing a plane going down. Ohers only saw the splash. Many heard the “boom” on impact, South Whidbey Fire spokesperson Jon Gabelein said.
Giard said they received similar reports from over 40 people.
People living near Mutiny Bay said the weather was overcast and a bit breezy Sunday.
The National Weather Service recorded a southwest wind at about 10 knots and clouds at 3,500 feet from the Naval Air Station near Oak Harbor around the time of the crash. At Paine Field, near Mukilteo, conditions were similar. Winds topped out around 14 knots.
“There was a convergence zone with light rain, but it’s unclear if that was a contributing factor,” said Jeff Michalski of NWS Seattle.
It’s unusual to have so little information almost a day after an accident, Giard said.
So far no witnesses had submitted videos of the crash.
“The Miracle on the Hudson situation was a lot easier to dissect very quickly because it was on the Hudson River amongst a whole bunch of people,” Giard said. “We don’t have that.”
Witnesses on the shore reportedly told search crews they saw the plane “nose dive into the water,” AP first reported.
In 2010, a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter crashed on an Alaskan mountainside, killing five of the nine people on board. It was reportedly flying between two fishing lodges. The NTSB returned an inconclusive report in 2011.
In 2017, five passengers and a pilot died after a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver floatplane crashed in a bay near Sydney, Australia. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau determined the pilot may have experienced carbon monoxide poisoning from a crack in the exhaust before he lost control of the plane.
U.S. Coast Guard crews, including four vessels, one helicopter and one plane, searched overnight and Monday morning, but spotted no debris. Assisting with search efforts were the Snohomish County and Island County sheriff’s offices; the South Whidbey, North Whidbey, Kitsap County and Everett fire departments; and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
“This is a huge tragedy,” Giard said. “Not only for the families and friends of the unaccounted for people, but for the searchers the local community and the United States.”
Residents should contact the Island County Sheriff, U.S. Coast Guard or the National Transportation Safety Board if they see any debris wash onshore.
Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BredaIsabella.
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