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NTSB arrives to investigate deadly Alaska plane crash

Ben Anderson
A single-engine DeHavilland turbine Otter lies on its side at the Soldotna municipal airport on Monday morning after a crash midday Sunday killed 10 people. Loren Holmes photo

SOLDOTNA -- A special team from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Washington, D.C., headquarters were en route to Alaska Monday to launch its investigation into an airplane crash at the Soldotna Municipal Airport Sunday morning that left 10 people dead. It was one of Alaska's deadliest aviation accidents in the last quarter-century. 

Beyond the confirmation of 10 deaths, there were few new details on the accident Monday afternoon. 

Included in the fatalities was Walter "Willy" Rediske, pilot and president of the family owned and operated charter-plane service Rediske Air, Inc. The nine other fatalities are from South Carolina, according to police, though no other details were given. The names of the victims, as well as other potential identifying information, will not be released until the remains of individuals have been positively identified by the State Medical Examiner according to Alaska State Troopers.

"Soldotna Police Department is working diligently with South Carolina authorities to identify and locate the probable next of kin" and the state medical examiner is working to identify the victims, according to Alaska State Troopers public information officer Megan Peters.  

No crash witnesses

There were no witnesses to the crash, though Mark Swensen with the Missionary Aviation Repair Center was first to the crash scene Sunday. He had been on his way to the airport that morning when he saw a fireball above tall trees near the airport.

When Swensen arrived he found the plane in flames on green grass just south runway. He said the sheet metal was burning and he suspects that no more than two minutes elapsed between the crash and his arrival. He looked for survivors or people who could be pulled from the plane, but he said it was clear immediately the plane was a total loss.

Chris Mokracek, chief of Central Emergency Services in Soldotna said the station received a report of the accident at 11:22 a.m. and was on scene minutes later. By 11:31, the fire was under control.

“As we pulled out of the station, (the fire crew) could see a very dark smoke column coming from the airport,” Mokracek said.

Weather at the time of the crash was reported to be cloudy with a light wind.

Despite the apparent lack of eyewitnesses, the likeliest scenario that has emerged is that the plane went down on takeoff. The crash triggered an explosion visible above the tall trees adjacent to airport property and the wreckage burned rapidly, suggesting that the aircraft was loaded with fuel. The area around the crash site was described as relatively intact, which could mean the plane didn't drag along the ground, as it might in a failed landing.

Taken together, these things imply the plane was in the process of taking off when something went wrong

"That's what we're theorizing at this point right now," Clint Johnson, head of the NTSB office in Anchorage, said Monday afternoon. He added, however, that such a conclusion is "preliminary information subject to change."

The Soldotna runway remained closed Monday afternoon.

Community reaction

In Nikiski, gray skies marked a sullen attitude in the small Kenai Peninsula community, where flags at the Rediske Air offices flew at half-staff Monday. A family spokesman, Andrew Harcombe, answered brief questions about the operation Monday. The private charter plane company, formed in 1991 according to Alaska state records, was headquartered in Nikiski, a community of about 4,000 some 25 miles north of Soldotna. Rediske Air operates a small Soldotna office that acted as a transfer terminal for passengers; it also operates a private plane charter business in Anchorage, nearby Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The company operates six planes including the single-engine DeHavilland turbine Otter that crashed Sunday.

It's been a tragic few weeks for Alaska aviators, and for South Carolina residents, 11 of whom have died. On June 28, a B-55 Beech Baron crashed near Cantwell, Alaska, a small community along the Parks Highway leading toward Denali National Park and Preserve. Washington state pilot Dale Hemman, 61, was leading a large airplane tour group from Fairbanks to Homer when the plane crashed and caught fire near the highway. Hemman and his passengers, 52-year-old Laurie Buckner of Simpsonville, S.C., and 74-year-old John Ellenberg of Greenville, S.C., all died. 

Despite the recent string of tragedies, airplane crashes with such high fatality counts as the Soldotna accident are rare in Alaska. In September of 1995, an Air Force aircraft crashed at Elmendorf Air Force Base outside Anchorage, killing 24. In 1987, a Ryan Air Beech 1900 crashed in Homer, killing 18 people. In 1985, two planes spotting sheep collided near Knik Glacier, killing 12.

Alaska Dispatch reporter Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this report. Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com