Search, rescue efforts halted in flightseeing plane crash near Denali
Search and recovery efforts were halted Monday morning for the flightseeing plane crashed Saturday night in Denali after searchers found the bodies of four out of the five people onboard dead-- the fifth person is missing and presumed dead, according to National Park Service officials.
NPS mountaineering rangers took advantage of a brief window of clearing weather and reached the wreckage for the first time since the plane went down on Aug. 4 near the summit of what's known as Thunder Mountain at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet., according to NPS.
"An NPS ranger was short-hauled to the crash site (suspended beneath the helicopter) where he dug through the snow that had filled the aircraft and found the bodies of four of the five passengers," NPS wrote in a statement Monday morning. "There were no footprints or disturbances leading away from the site and there were no other signs to indicate any of the passengers made it out of the plane."
A temporary flight restriction has been put in place in the area of Denali National Park & Preserve to minimize traffic in the area of the crash site.
All four of the passengers aboard the K2 aviation de Havilland Beaver (DHC-2) are from Poland, according to the NPS. Their names are being withheld pending notification of family members.
According to Denali National Park and Preserve spokesperson Katherine Belcher, the Talkeetna-based flightseeing aircraft carrying a pilot and four passengers inside crashed near Denali National Park and Preserve.
"An Air Guard HC-130 is flying over the coordinates that came in from an ELT and offered by the (crashed) pilot, who has a satellite phone and is in comms with the private air tour company he works for," Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, with the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs wrote Saturday. "Searchers don’t have eyes on (the) aircraft yet because of cloud cover between them and the aircraft."
Belcher said according to the plane’s electronic locator transmitter, the de Havilland Beaver (DHC-2), operated by K2 Aviation, the crash site is believed to be near the summit of Thunder Mountain (10,920 feet), roughly 14 miles southwest of the summit of Denali.
NPS says the pilot was able to use a satellite phone to report the crash and say that there were injuries but everyone is still alive before the connection was lost.
"According to K2 Aviation, the pilot of the downed plane made at least two satellite phone calls to the company’s airport office to report the crash, one shortly after it occurred and another at approximately 7 p.m.," Belcher said. "The pilot reported injuries, but the extent is unknown. Two subsequent satellite calls were initiated from the aircraft, but the satellite connection dropped and no sound was transmitted."
K2 Aviation said the plane had been on a flight near the Kahiltna Glacier. Belcher believes the pilot was flying the passengers back to Talkeetna before the plane went down.
"Search efforts are underway and K2 Aviation is cooperating fully with the Alaska State Troopers, the National Park Service, Alaska Air National Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and other authorities involved," K2 officials wrote. "K2 Aviation, in conjunction with the authorities, will continue to share updates as they become available."
An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and Guard pararescuemen had been sent to Talkeetna Saturday evening.
Denali National Park launched its A-Start B3e helicopter crew around 8 p.m. but due to cloud cover, rescuers were unable to communicate with the pilot via radio which is believed to have been damaged in the crash, Belcher said. The crew returned to Talkeetna at 11 p.m. due to deteriorating weather conditions.
Belcher said a K2 Aviation plane took off at 5 a.m. on Sunday to assess flight conditions and reported a low-cloud ceiling.
"When weather permits, a four-member ground crew will stage near the base of Thunder Mountain to provide weather observations and assist in the event of a short-haul or military hoist rescue," Belcher said. "A ground ascent of Thunder Mountain is not considered an option due to significant rockfall and unstable snow and cornice conditions at this time of the year."
Belcher said the de Havilland Beaver is reportedly equipped with an emergency survival kit including sleeping bags, a stove and pot to boil water, food supplies, first aid kit and other items.
NPS said they have a good idea where the plane is, however, due to poor visibility, they were forced to head back to Talkeetna just after 5 p.m. on Sunday.
K2 Aviation released a statement Sunday evening saying they send their thoughts and prayers to the families of their guests and the pilot involved in the incident. All flight tours have been canceled until further notice.
"The first responders from the National Park Service, FAA, NTSB, and Alaska Air National Guard have our utmost thanks and appreciation for their tireless efforts," K2 said in a statement Monday morning. "It is imperative we understand the factors surrounding this incident to help prevent any further tragedies. We would also like to thank the community of Talkeetna and our tour partners across the state for its support in the recent days."
Lauren Maxwell, Dave Leval and Mary Simton contributed to this story.
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