Witnesses recall Whidbey Island plane crash, rescue efforts

At least five boats of witnesses raced to the crash site in hopes of saving those aboard the aircraft.

Logo for news use featuring Whidbey Island in Island County, Washington. 220118

By Sarah Grace Taylor / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Matt Peterson and his stepfather didn’t need to discuss whether to respond after a floatplane plummeted Sunday into the Puget Sound.

The pair sprang into action after the plane nose-dived into Mutiny Bay off Whidbey Island, prompting a delayed boom.

“I think they were rowing before 911 even answered my call,” said Peterson’s sister, Becky Carter, who also witnessed the crash. “They didn’t hesitate. They just knew to help. A lot of the neighbors did too.”

Peterson and Bill Messner, his stepfather, were among at least five boats of witnesses who raced to the crash site in hopes of saving those aboard the aircraft, which was bound for Renton from Friday Harbor.

“We never stopped looking at the crash,” said Peterson, a Magnolia resident. “We were just laser focused on where it went in and knew we needed to help.”

When Messner heard the boom, he came to the beach. He and Peterson, who saw the plane go down, leapt in a dinghy — headed for Messner’s moored ski boat.

The duo set off, joining other witnesses on various fishing boats and whalers.

There was no substantial evidence of the plane other than the strong fumes of fuel “bubbling up” from beneath the surface, Peterson said.

“We didn’t see any smoke or any fire when it first hit or when we got out there. And there were no big pieces of the fuselage or floats from the plane,” Peterson said. “It was just the little pieces that floated to the top.”

The witnesses pulled small pieces of foam, flotation devices, a logbook and other scraps from the plane. They found personal items, including a passenger’s credit card and a child’s shoe.

Within minutes, Peterson and Messner spotted red fabric in the debris.

“When I saw that, that’s when I was sure it was unsurvivable,” Peterson said.

The fabric was clothing on a woman’s battered body — the only body recovered from the scene so far.

Peterson and Messner then alerted the Coast Guard over high frequency radio and tethered the body to their boat while continuing to look for other evidence.

Peterson had been texting his wife, who asked for an update.

His reply: “No survivors.”

“There’s nothing left”

Noël Jackson called 911 from a nearby sailboat, the first vessel to arrive, and tearfully relayed her findings to dispatchers: “There’s nothing left.”

She and her husband, Dave Jackson, were on their way home to Portland after spending time in the San Juan Islands.

During their trip, friends and family took similar seaplanes to visit them in the islands, including their daughter one week earlier.

After being delayed by a ferry and traffic earlier Sunday, the Jacksons were on the water, about 100 yards from the plane as it began plummeting.

“I thought it might be landing, but it was coming in at a 45-degree angle in a shipping channel, so I knew it must be an emergency,” Dave Jackson said.

After glancing away to navigate, he noticed the nosedive, the splash and heard the loud sound described by others. He said he didn’t hear any sound of the plane’s engine before the impact.

Carter, who was vacationing from Everett at her family’s cabin, said the crash didn’t cause any visible smoke or flames.

“It was a huge splash, and then the plane was just completely gone,” she said.

“The obvious thing to do”

With all those aboard the flight now presumed dead and most of the wreckage still missing, Peterson said Tuesday he is grappling with the situation. The body, the shoe and other personal details of the wreckage have left him traumatized.

Above all else, he said he wishes their efforts could have changed the outcome.

“I went with Bill because it was the obvious thing to do, but at some point I did hope I would get to actually help someone,” he said.

The Jacksons are similarly struggling to make sense of what happened. says they “felt like zombies” on Monday and Tuesday.

“It’s wrong or it just feels so unfair for people who were not doing anything wrong to have everything suddenly taken away,” Dave Jackson said.

“And to be the last people to ever see someone, or evidence of someone,” Noël said, struggling to complete her sentence through tears. “Then there was just nothing there. They were just gone.”

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - In this March 9, 1995 file photo, trainer Marcia Hinton pets Lolita, a captive orca whale, during a performance at the Miami Seaquarium in Miami. The new owners of the Miami Seaquarium will no longer stage shows with its aging orca Lolita under an agreement with federal regulators. MS Leisure, a subsidiary of The Dolphin Company, said in a news release it completed acquisition of the Seaquarium on Thursday, March 3, 2022.    (Nuri Vallbona/Miami Herald via AP, File)
Agreement in place to return Lolita the orca to the Pacific

A plan is in place to return an orca that has lived in captivity for more than 50 years to her home waters.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of Seattle.
Seattle Audubon changes name, severing tie to slave owner

Seattle Audubon is changing its name to Birds Connect Seattle to move away from a name with a racist legacy.

Logo for news use, for stories regarding Washington state government — Olympia, the Legislature and state agencies. No caption necessary. 20220331
Washington moves to end child sex abuse lawsuit time limits

House Bill 1618 would remove time limits that have stymied lawsuits who frequently do not fully confront childhood trauma until years later.

In this image provided by John Odegard, firefighters in Seattle douse flames at a marina on Lake Union, near the city's University District, early on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The fire burned 30 boats on a dry-rack storage facility, and a man found hiding in one vessel was arrested for investigation of arson, authorities said. (John Odegard via AP)
Fire at Seattle marina burns 30 boats on dry rack storage

A man found hiding in one vessel was arrested for investigation of arson, authorities said.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of Seattle.
Deputy shot, wounded in Seattle during eviction, 1 dead

A King County Sheriff’s deputy was shot Monday and a person inside the residence was later found dead.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of Washington state.
Man pleads guilty to stalking Washington state lawmaker

Isaiah Long, 34, of Bremerton, pleaded guilty to two counts of felony stalking Rep. Michelle Caldier.

Amtrak restores full daily train service to Vancouver, B.C.

Amtrak has restarted direct trips between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Leonard Cobb, co-founder of state’s first Medic One, dies at 96

An incident more than 60 years ago helped prompt creation of the groundbreaking emergency medical service.

A Value Village store is seen Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Edmonds, Wash. The company that operates 300 Value Village, Savers and other thrift stores in the U.S., Canada and Australia is suing Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, saying his office has violated its rights by demanding $3.2 million to settle a three-year investigation. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Court rejects deception charges against Savers Value Village

The Washington state Supreme Court handed the thrift store chain Savers Value Village a unanimous win Thursday.

Breadson John, 8, was found safe in Missouri on Wednesday, Feb. 21, after going missing from Vancouver in June 2022. (FBI)
Vancouver boy, 8, missing since June, found in Missouri

Breadson John was found safe in Jasper County Missouri after being missing for 8 months.

Seattle Council Member Kshama Sawant speaks to supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance to add caste to Seattle's anti-discrimination laws at a rally at Seattle City Hall, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in Seattle. Sawant proposed the ordinance. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
Seattle becomes first U.S. city to ban caste discrimination

The Seattle City Council on Tuesday added caste to the city’s anti-discrimination laws, becoming the first city to pass such a law outside South Asia.

Clay Siegall, cofounder and former CEO of Seagen. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Why prosecutors say former Seagen CEO wasn’t charged after arrest

Edmonds prosecutors said there were contradictory statements on the night Seagen ex-CEO Clay Siegall was accused of domestic violence.