A mother on board a plane that crashed in remote southwest Alaska made a frantic phone call for help resuscitating her five-month-old baby, then left the fatally injured boy to lead searchers hampered by cold and fog to the crash site.
Melanie Coffee, 25, of Mountain Village walked nearly 1.5 kilometres toward lights in the village of Saint Mary's to meet rescuers Friday night.
"I believe she's the real hero in this," said Saint Mary's Village Police Officer Fred Lamont Jr., one of the dozens from his community and surrounding villages who responded to the crash that killed four and injured six.
The Hageland Aviation Cessna 208 turboprop left Bethel at 5:40 p.m. on a scheduled flight for Mountain Village and eventually Saint Mary's.
Saint Mary's, like scores of other Alaska villages, is off the state road system. People routinely use small aircraft to reach regional hubs where they can catch another plane to complete trips to Anchorage or other cities.
Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said the airplane would have been flying in freezing rain with a mile of visibility and a 90-metre ceiling. Lamont described conditions as ice fog with moisture that stuck to vehicles.
The airplane never reached Mountain Village. It crashed around 6:30 p.m. four miles from Saint Mary's, said Clint Johnson, head of the National Transportation Safety Board in Alaska.
Pilot Terry Hansen, 68, passengers Rose Polty, 57, Richard Polty, 65, and the infant, Wyatt Coffee, died in the crash.
The survivors included Melanie Coffee, Pauline Johnson, 37, Kylan Johnson, 14, Tanya Lawrence, 35, Garrett Moses, 30, and Shannon Lawrence. All were seriously injured and four were in critical condition, Lamont said. All but Hanson and Shannon Lawrence are from Mountain Village, troopers said.
Lamont, the village police officer, is also trained as a health aide and was working with an ambulance driver Friday. At about 7 p.m., he said, Melanie Coffee called another on-duty health aide to say the airplane had crashed and she needed assistance.
"She was trying to do CPR to her newborn baby," Lamont said. "She called for help."
Lamont and the driver headed out in the ambulance to look for the crash. Other health officials put out the call for responders. Two state troopers assigned to the community joined the effort. People from Mountain Village and Pitka's Point, which are connected to Saint Marys by local roads, helped search by car and snowmobile.
"Whoever had a vehicle was out there looking," Lamont said
Fog hampered the search and responders could not immediately locate the crash site despite speaking to the injured.
"We had no clue," Lamont said.
Coffee, who suffered chest trauma, tried whistling to alert searchers, Lamont said. She considered starting a fire to get their attention but eventually decided to start walking toward village lights. A GCI communications tower with a red strobe led her three-quarters of a mile to the village landfill.
"That's where everyone found her," Lamont said.
She led searchers back to the crash site. It was not accessible by snowmobile. Rescuers put the injured on stretchers and carried them out on foot to the landfill where they could be transported by ambulance to the village and then flown out.
A Coast Guard C-130 could not land because of fog but the injured were transported by a LifeMed Alaska flight and two other aircraft.
NTSB Investigator Clint Johnson said the cause of the crash has not been determined.
"It's very much in the preliminary stages at this point," he said.
Two investigators were on their way to Bethel on Saturday to meet troopers for transportation to the crash site. Reaching the wreckage would depend on weather and safety considerations, Peters said. No one was at the crash site Saturday morning.
"There's no rush to get there," Peters said. "There's no reason to risk anyone's life because no one's life is in jeopardy."
Hageland Aviation is part of the Era Group that includes Era Aviation. Hageland President Jim Hickerson said in a statement that the crash is "an unspeakable tragedy for us."
"Hageland is working to gather information to answer questions and do what we can to ease the suffering of those involved in the accident," he said.