By MARK THIESSEN
(ANCHORAGE, Alaska, AP) — All 10 people aboard an air taxi were killed as the aircraft crashed and was engulfed in flames at a small Alaska airport.
Before firefighters could get to it, the de Havilland DHC3 Otter began burning just after 11 a.m. Sunday at the airport in Soldotna, about 75 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula.
Firefighters from Central Emergency Services were the first on the scene, Capt. Lesley Quelland told the Anchorage Daily News (http://bit.ly/10IzzQN).
“We saw the plume immediately when we left the station,” Quelland said Sunday evening.
It was a big, black cloud of smoke visible from the station, about three driving miles from the airport, she said. Firefighters found “the aircraft was crashed off the side of the runway and it was fully involved in flames,” Quelland said.
It took crews about 10 minutes to put out the fire. Everyone died inside the plane, she said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson confirmed to The Associated Press that the dead included nine passengers and the pilot.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the Otter was operated by Rediske Air, based out of another Kenai Peninsula community, Nikiski.
Will Satathite, who was working Sunday at Rediske Air’s Nikiski office, confirmed to the Peninsula Clarion newspaper that the aircraft was flown by Nikiski pilot and company owner Willy Rediske.
A man who didn’t identify himself at the Rediske office declined comment later Sunday to the AP, saying the crash was under investigation.
Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Meagan Peters said a fire that consumed the aircraft initially kept firefighters from reaching the wreckage. The passengers have not been identified.
The Soldotna Police Department said Sunday evening that the remains of all 10 people have been sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for autopsies and positive identifications.
Police said in a release through the Alaska State Troopers that weather at the time of the crash was reported to be cloudy with a light wind.
Johnson said initial reports have the plane crashing after departure, but that will have to be confirmed by investigators.
The NTSB is sending an investigative team from Washington that’s scheduled to arrive Monday afternoon. Also taking part will be Alaska-based investigator Brice Banning, who was called back from the Asiana crash in San Francisco.
For many Alaskans, flying across the state is common because of the limited road system, exposing residents to a litany of hazards, including treacherous mountain passes and volatile weather. It’s possible to drive from Anchorage to Soldotna, but it’s about a four-hour trip as the highway hugs Turnagain Arm and then cuts through a mountain passage.
Soldotna was founded in 1947 by World War II veterans who were given 90-day preference for homesteading rights in 1947, according to a state website. The city, now with a population of about 4,300, is on the banks of the Kenai River, and the area is busy this time of the year with people fishing for salmon.
Alaska has already seen a several plane crashes this year, including a June 28 crash that killed a pilot and two passengers on a commercial tour in the Alaska Range.
In another crash Saturday, two men had to swim to shore after their plane went down in the waters off Kodiak Island. The small plane crashed after its engine sputtered out, and the men swam about 50 yards, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported.
The Soldotna crash also came a day after two teenagers were killed when an Asiana flight crashed at San Francisco’s airport.
The municipal airport is located about a mile from Soldotna’s commercial business area and is adjacent to the Kenai River, according to the city’s website.
The runway is 5,000 feet long and paved.