Death in the Alaskan clouds as sight­see­ing planes col­lide

Four dead, in­clud­ing one Cana­dian

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL HIG­GINS

The trip to Alaska’s Misty Fjords Na­tional Mon­u­ment was de­scribed as a spec­tac­u­lar sea­plane ad­ven­ture al­low­ing sight­seers to marvel at the wa­ter­falls, glis­ten­ing lakes and lush for­est.

But the hour-long ad­ven­ture turned to hor­ror and death when two sight­see­ing float­planes col­lided in midair over open wa­ter leav­ing four dead, 10 res­cued and two miss­ing. One of the dead is a Cana­dian, al­though no names have been re­leased.

The Coast Guard un­der­took a mas­sive search and res­cue mis­sion with the help of Alaska State Troop­ers, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, Alaska Depart­ment of Fish and Game as well as vol­un­teers.

“In a re­mote area such as this, given our limited re­sources, we rely on our part­ner agen­cies and ap­pre­ci­ate the sup­port that good Sa­mar­i­tans have ren­dered to this point,” said Capt. Stephen White, Coast Guard Sec­tor Juneau com­man­der. “With the loss of life in this case, we know that the im­pact to Alaska is im­mense and our thoughts are with the com­mu­nity here.”

The sight­seers were all pas­sen­gers from the cruise ship Royal Princess that was on a seven-day trip from Van­cou­ver to An­chor­age.

One plane, a de Hav­il­land Ot­ter op­er­ated by Taquan Air, was car­ry­ing 10 guests from the cruise ship as well as a pi­lot, and was re­turn­ing from a tour of the nearby Misty Fjords Na­tional Mon­u­ment, named for the low clouds that cling to sheer cliffs ris­ing from the fjords.

The other aircraft, a de Hav­il­land Beaver op­er­ated by an “in­de­pen­dent tour,” ac­cord­ing to the cruise line, car­ried four Royal Princess pas­sen­gers and a pi­lot.

“The Misty Fjords Na­tional Mon­u­ment is home to some of the most dra­matic scenery in Alaska, and only by air will you be able to fully ap­pre­ci­ate the dra­matic beauty of land, slowly crafted by the hands of na­ture over tens of thou­sands of years,” says the cruise line in pro­mot­ing the tour.

The two planes col­lided Mon­day at 1:08 p.m. lo­cal time, ac­cord­ing to Princess Cruises, near Ge­orge In­let, about eight nau­ti­cal miles (15 kilo­me­tres) off Ketchikan. The Beaver, with five aboard, in­clud­ing the pi­lot, broke up in mid-air, scat­ter­ing wreck­age over a wide area.

A large part of the plane was par­tially sub­merged up­side down in sea­wa­ter, vol­un­teer res­cuer Chris John told the An­chor­age Daily News.

Three peo­ple from the plane died and two were miss­ing.

The Ot­ter was lo­cated fairly in­tact, with sur­vivors re­ported to have made a “short swim” to the beach from the crash site.

Ten peo­ple were res­cued and suf­fered in­juries rang­ing from “arm frac­tures to ribs to spine to leg,” hospi­tal spokesper­son Su­san Gregg told the Daily News. “No­body’s in a life-threat­en­ing con­di­tion.”

One per­son died af­ter be­ing un­able to es­cape the Ot­ter as it sank.

“It sank, and the divers dove on that,” Dykens said, ac­cord­ing to the Daily News. “This (deceased) in­di­vid­ual ap­pears to have had dif­fi­culty egress­ing the plane.”

U.S. Coast Guard planes and ves­sels scram­bled af­ter the crash, send­ing an MH60 Jay­hawk he­li­copter and two 45-foot Re­sponse BoatMedium crews from its base in Ketchikan.

The Coast Guard said it was “un­aware” of why and how the planes col­lided. The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board has sent a team to Alaska to in­ves­ti­gate.

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

In a state­ment, Taquan Air said it was “dev­as­tated” by the in­ci­dent and sus­pended all sched­uled flights as it co-op­er­ated with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, the Daily News re­ported.

Mon­day’s col­li­sion was the se­cond crash in­volv­ing Taquan in the area in the past year. In July, af­ter a plane crashed into a moun­tain­side, in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded a pi­lot turned off a warn­ing sys­tem that alerts to such col­li­sions, the Daily News re­ported. All 11 peo­ple on­board sur­vived, though some of them suf­fered se­ri­ous in­juries.

A 2015 crash in the same area was eerily sim­i­lar to Mon­day’s in­ci­dent.

A plane with cruise line pas­sen­gers crashed into a moun­tain while re­turn­ing from Misty Fjords, killing all eight pas­sen­gers and the pi­lot. Lax stan­dards and fly­ing de­spite poor weather led to the crash, in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded, ac­cord­ing to the Daily News. The plane was op­er­ated by Promech Air. It was bought by Taquan the next year.

RYAN SINKEY / U.S. COAST GUARD

The U.S. Coast Guard searches for sur­vivors of a downed aircraft near Ge­orge In­let near Ketchikan, Alaska.

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