DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — An investigation is underway in Denali National Park to determine what caused a cargo plane to crash near the park’s headquarters Sunday afternoon, killing three people on board.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board say they are still in the early stages of an investigation into the 3 p.m. crash of the Fairchild C-123, registered to All West Freight, Inc. of Delta Junction.
Pilot and company owner Bill Michel, 61, as well as 52-year-old John Eshleman and 66-year-old Paul Quartly, both of Wasilla, were killed when the plane crashed into the southern slope of Mount Healy, within a mile of park headquarters.
“Obviously, it’s tragic -- the airplane’s obviously heavily damaged,” said park ranger Richard Moore, explaining the layout of the crash site.
The crash sparked a wildland fire that was contained to one acre before crews put it out. The burned wreckage is just 100 yards from a popular trail that borders a heavily travelled road.
“It was a tragedy, obviously, for the people involved. But I was thankful that the tragedy wasn’t compounded by fatalities on the ground, given how busy everything was and the location of the crash,” park spokesperson Kris Fister said.
Fister says plane crashes inside the park aren’t uncommon, but she says this one -- the largest plane ever to crash in the park -- is unique because of its size and location.
“The crashes we’ve had in the park are typically just not anywhere close to where there’s anybody around, so this one is fairly unique in that respect,” Fister said.
NTSB investigator Leah Yeager’s job is to try to determine what caused the fatal crash. She toured the crash site in a helicopter Monday.
“We were able to get a bird’s-eye view of how the aircraft was flying through the valley, and of course how it impacted the terrain,” Yeager said.
Yeager says she plans to be on-site for a few more days. The state medical examiner retrieved the bodies of the victims Monday.
Witnesses of the crash describe it as a life-changing event.
Dawn Murray, her brother Glenn Murray and their spouses were expecting a quiet vacation in the park this weekend -- but just minutes before they got into the car to head home, they saw the C-123 go down nearby.
“Just, like, you smell it and hear it and it's going to take a while to forget -- maybe I'll never forget it,” Dawn Murray said. “I mean, right over the road and then right over us and then crashed, and I've never -- my life is forever changed, I've never been that close to that kind of tragedy.”
The foursome were wrapping up their trip to Denali with a hike Sunday.
“We heard this huge, loud aircraft right above us and no higher than 150 feet up, there he was, and he was banked very sharp and on his side to the left, and we said, ‘That's just too low,’” Dawn Murray said.
After passing over them, the plane flipped upside down and crashed.
“Heard the explosion, obviously, and I'd say that thing went down no more than maybe 150 yards from us -- we ran back up the trail,” said Glenn Murray.
The group arrived on scene before anyone else.
“We yelled out for survivors and nobody answered,” Dawn said.
For Dawn, a nurse, her EMT husband and ex-military Glenn, their training kicked in.
“We did a grid people search, looking in the trees for maybe parachuters or whatever,” Dawn said.
But there was nothing they could do.
“Everything was still in flames,” Glenn said. “I mean, some of it had died down but, every once in a while you get this minor little airball of an explosion -- it was pretty hot, it was hard to get real close.”
Within a matter of minutes, more than a dozen people showed up. Park rangers helped search for survivors, and firefighters began to put out the two-acre blaze the crash sparked.
“Pretty eerie experience, actually, quite surreal -- it's just the way you look through the forest and it was just, like, everything was gone,” Glenn said.
“Every time I see a low-flying aircraft now, I'm freaked,” Dawn said.
By sharing their memories and talking through the pain, they hope the shock of what they saw will fade -- but the graphic images of this trip will never fully go away.
Dawn Murray says she's lucky her family is still alive, and says she feels for the families of the victims.
Contact Jackie Bartz at firstname.lastname@example.org and Lori Tipton at email@example.com