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Team investigating Alaska plane crash struggles with few leads

Dr. Greg Berg (L) and Ms. Kelley Esh, anthropologists leading a specialized recovery team with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, verify
Dr. Greg Berg (L) and Ms. Kelley Esh, anthropologists leading a specialized recovery team with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, verify

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Experts investigating a floatplane crash that killed 10 people in Alaska face a scarcity of information and will rely on skid marks and satellite signals to determine the cause, a federal official said on Tuesday.

No one has claimed to have witnessed the crash on Sunday of the de Havilland-built Otter plane at the airport in the fishing town of Soldotna, 65 miles southwest of Anchorage, said National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener, spokesman for the investigation team.

Investigators face another hurdle because the plane had no flight-data box from which information could be gathered and no surveillance video has been found, Weener said. "It forces us to go back to try to identify ground scars ... how far the impact, where was the debris distributed," he said.

Investigators will reconstruct the last moments before the crash and then identify possible causes or eliminate them, he said.

The crash killed local pilot Walter Rediske, co-owner of an air-taxi service, and members of two families from South Carolina. The plane was bound from the Soldotna airport for a wilderness lodge about 90 miles to the southwest, Weener said. Investigators have said the plane appears to have crashed shortly after take-off.

The crash came a day after an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 with more than 300 people on board crashed while landing at San Francisco's airport, killing two Chinese teenagers and injuring more than 180 people.

Sunday's death toll was the highest Alaska has seen in any plane crash in more than a decade. The NTSB assembled a "go team" of six experts, joined by one Alaska-based NTSB official, to investigate the accident.

So far, Weener said, they have found that the plane hit the ground with its right wing down and nose low, and struck a site just off the paved runway.

Investigators hope to glean some information from satellite signals transmitted from the plane and from the five cellular telephones recovered from the crash site, Weener said.

Despite the lack of flight-data information or witness accounts, NTSB team members believe they will determine what likely happened to the plane and its passengers, Weener said. "I'm quite confident that we will be able to come to what we call a probable cause," he said.

The investigation team is expected to spend about a week at the site in Alaska, then take up to a year to complete a report.

Travel by floatplanes is common in Alaska, where roads are few and territory is vast. Air crashes are also relatively common, especially in the summer, when tourists and residents visit remote recreation sites.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Mohammad Zargham)

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