Editor’s note: This is a live account of updates from Monday, Sept. 6, as the day unfolded. It is no longer being updated.
Rescue efforts were suspended midday Monday for nine people still missing after a floatplane crashed off Whidbey Island the day before, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
All ten people who were aboard the plane when it crashed Sunday shortly after 3 p.m. are presumed dead. A woman’s body was recovered Sunday shortly after the crash by the first crews to respond, while the other nine people, including a child, remain unaccounted for.
The plane, a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Turbine Otter owned by the charter service Northwest Seaplanes and operated by Friday Harbor Seaplanes, was traveling from Friday Harbor to Renton.
Live updates about the crash continue below.
Our journalists are working to better understand this breaking news situation. If you have information you can share with us, please email us at email@example.com.
Spokane civil rights activist Sandy Williams among floatplane crash victims
Sandy Williams, a civil rights activist in Spokane, was a passenger on the floatplane that crashed near Whidbey Island on Sunday, The Spokesman-Review has reported.
Rick Williams, Sandy Williams’ brother, said the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that she was aboard the plane.
Sandy Williams founded the Carl Maxey Center, a community center in East Central Spokane, and was the publisher of the Black Lens, a Black newspaper in Spokane, according to The Spokesman-Review.
Rick Williams told The Spokesman-Review that his sister was on her way home from vacationing in the San Juan Islands. The family spoke to her by phone just before she boarded the plane, he said.
The family had planned to celebrate her 61st birthday next week.
All 10 aboard floatplane presumed dead after crash near Whidbey Island
WHIDBEY ISLAND — After a fruitless day of searching by air and water, the Coast Guard suspended its search Monday for a missing floatplane with 10 people aboard that plunged into Puget Sound near Whidbey Island and sank in the deep, cold waters of Mutiny Bay.
Hours later, the family of three of those presumed dead identified them as renowned Washington vintner Ross Andrew Mickel, the founder of the Eastside-based Ross Andrew Winery; his wife, Lauren Hilty; and their 22-month-old son, Remy.
Also aboard the plane, according to The Spokesman-Review, was Spokane civil rights activist Sandy Williams, 60, who founded a community center and Black newspaper in that city.
“This is a loss to the whole community, not just the Black community,” Spokane City Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson told The Spokesman-Review.
Searchers have recovered only a single body, a woman’s, and otherwise have found few traces of the single-engine de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Turbine Otter that disappeared from radar Sunday around 3 p.m. The plane, owned by the Renton-based charter service Northwest Seaplanes and operated by Friday Harbor Seaplanes, was traveling from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands to Renton.
Family members of victims release statement
Family members of Ross Mickel, a local winery owner and passenger aboard the plane who is presumed dead, released a statement:
"We are deeply saddened and beyond devastated at the loss of our beloved Ross Mickel, Lauren Hilty, Remy and their unborn baby boy, Luca. Our collective grief is unimaginable. They were a bright and shining light in the lives of everyone who knew them. Although their time with us was too short, we will carry their legacy forward. We want to thank all the first responders, emergency service agencies of Whidbey Island, Island County, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI), and the private citizens who participated in the search and rescue efforts following the crash. The enormous outpouring and support we have received from our friends, family, and the public has been overwhelming. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who also lost loved ones on-board. At this difficult time, we are requesting that our privacy be respected as we grieve the loss of our family members."
Owners of downed plane release statement
Northwest Seaplanes, which owns the seaplane that crashed near Whidbey Island on Sunday, released a short statement via its Facebook account Monday afternoon.
"The team at Northwest Seaplanes is heartbroken," the statement read. "We don't know any details yet regarding the cause of the accident."
Northwest Seaplanes is a charter service located in Renton. Its sister company, Friday Harbor Seaplanes, was operating yesterday's flight, traveling from Friday Harbor to Renton.
Plane model has had at least 14 fatal U.S. crashes since 1975
At least 14 fatal crashes have been reported involving the model of seaplane that crashed with 10 people on board Sunday off Whidbey Island.
The National Transportation Safety Board reports that it has investigated 59 crashes involving the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter floatplane, including eight fatal crashes that killed a total of 18 people between 1975 and August 2004, when the last fatal crash of that model occurred in McGrath, Alaska. Six of those crashes involving the DHC-3 happened in Alaska, with others in Puerto Rico and Texas.
While the NTSB data reflects only closed investigations, Associated Press reports indicate at least six more fatal accidents in the U.S. involving that model in the intervening years.
A pilot and two passengers were killed Oct. 26, 2019, in the Canadian province of Manitoba when the right wing of a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter separated from its fuselage, according to a report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. The plane was flying at an altitude of 400 feet when the wing came off, causing the plane to plunge into a lake in “a nose-down attitude,” according to the report.
Citing the fatal crash in Canada, last December the FAA issued an airworthiness directive, meant to alert operators to maintenance requirements based on past problems a particular model of aircraft has experienced.
The directive takes aim at the prospect of wear and tear causing wings to separate from the fuselage of DHC-3 aircraft midflight, just one of several concerns with that model that got the FAA’s attention.
In all, the FAA has issued 27 airworthiness directives targeting that model of aircraft. The concerns they address range from engine fires to elevator control systems that control the plane’s pitch and inadequate seat restraints that might not function properly in a crash, among others.
No distress call from plane
The pilot of the de Havilland DHC-3 Otter that crashed Sunday afternoon did not log a distress call before hitting the water, Scott Giard, search and rescue program director for the Pacific Northwest regional Coast Guard, confirmed Monday.
The first official log of the crash came via a 911 call to the Island County Emergency Operations Center at 3:11 pm, said William Colclough, assistant public affairs officer with the Coast Guard’s 13th District.
According to Giard, the owner of the plane was tracking the flight and attempted to radio when it veered slightly toward Port Townsend and later stopped tracking. There was no answer.
Coast Guard suspends search
The Coast Guard said it has suspended its search and called off rescue efforts for the nine people who remain missing after the floatplane crash.
The mission will now become a recovery effort, and the agency was bringing out a drone and submersible craft to continue looking for victims and debris from the plane. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has divers at the scene.
The Coast Guard's decision to suspend an active search and rescue is based on estimations of how long someone could have survived in the water, and the Guard’s inability to scour beneath the water, said Scott Giard, search and rescue program director for the Pacific Northwest regional Coast Guard.
All next of kin have been notified, the Coast Guard said.
The rescue mission included a search area of more than 2,100 square nautical miles, the Coast Guard said.
“It is always difficult when it comes time to make a decision to stop searching,” Captain Daniel Broadhurst, incident management branch chief for the Coast Guard's 13th district, said in a news release. “The hearts of all the first responders go out to those who lost a family member, a loved one or a friend in the crash.”
Currently, the Coast Guard knows very little about the circumstances of the crash or the state of the aircraft, Giard said. The recovery effort will seek to recover evidence that could help in investigating the cause and circumstances of the crash.
The Coast Guard has recovered several yardslong pieces of aluminum and smaller pieces of debris smelling of fuel, but “very little” of the actual plane has been found as of midday Monday, Giard said. He showed reporters a piece of foam found by a nearby resident. About the size of a saucer, it smelled of fuel and is presumed to be evidence.
“Debris is very finicky with not having a clear video or pictures of the actual crash itself and not knowing how grandiose or extravagant the actual damage was when it hit the water,” Giard said. “It really gives us no idea whether the aircraft completely broke up or maybe if there is a large piece of fuselage underneath the water.”
They believe the bulk of the plane is on the seafloor, about 150 to 250 feet under the surface, Giard said.
Crews will resume rescue efforts if new evidence of survivors is discovered.
'It's a small crew' at seaplane company
Northwest Seaplanes' business office next to the seaplane dock at the Renton Municipal Airport remained closed behind fencing on Monday.
The only visible activity was two people hugging near the front door. The only floatplane at the dock appeared to be a small private Cessna.
A woman who answered the phone early Monday said they’re waiting to learn more and are devastated by the crash.
“It’s a small crew. Everyone’s close,” said the woman, who would only give her first name, Michelle. She declined to say more.
Plane dropped suddenly, crashed in a matter of seconds
Before it crashed into Mutiny Bay off Whidbey Island, the DHC-3 Otter floatplane appeared to be in control for the first 18 minutes of its flight from Friday Harbor to Renton, according to Kathleen Bangs, an aviation expert and former seaplane pilot. But when the plane began to lose elevation, it did so quickly, at a pace of thousands of feet per minute, said Bangs, who is the spokesperson for Flight Aware but was speaking in her individual capacity.
The plane was flying at around 600 feet, at a speed of roughly 140 miles per hour, which means its plunge into Puget Sound occurred in just seconds.
“When you see something like that, you think, ‘Could it have been a collision with something, could it have been pilot incapacitation, or could it have been intentional?’” she said. “Once you get those out of the way, the thing I’d be looking at is the age of the airplane.”
The DHC-3 is a solid craft with a good reputation, she said, but it was built in the 1960s. Compounding the age is the saltwater in which the plane operates; that can speed corrosion.
Bangs is skeptical the issue was with the engine; a pilot in a seaplane could maneuver the plane toward an emergency landing more slowly if the problem was a power loss.
“They were by no means under control,” she said.
Floatplane company reached settlement in 2010 crash
Northwest Seaplanes, the company whose de Havilland DHC-3 Otter crashed Sunday with 10 people on board, previously settled a lawsuit involving a crash that killed a toddler, court records show. However, later rulings determined that the company's actions had not caused the crash.
In the previous accident on June 1, 2010, a single-engine Cessna crashed into a vacant building on takeoff from an airport in Anchorage, Alaska.
The plane was piloted by Preston Cavner, whose two sons, wife and a babysitter were on board. One of the children, 4-year-old Myles Cavner, died in the crash, and everyone else on board was injured.
The Cavner family sued the manufacturer of the plane’s engine as well as another company and Northwest Seaplanes, which had conducted inspections of the plane and replaced engine components but failed to note metal burrs accumulating in the engine that could potentially affect its performance by causing dangerously low compression in the engine’s cylinders, according to court records.
Northwest Seaplanes struck an unspecified settlement with the Cavners before the lawsuit went to trial. Later, the trial court and the Washington State Court of Appeals both ruled that Northwest Seaplanes’ actions had not caused the crash, court records show.
The investigation into Sunday’s crash of a Northwest Seaplanes flight in the water a mile off Whidbey Island is in its early stages. One woman on board has been confirmed dead, and the search is ongoing for nine other passengers, including a child.
Still a rescue mission, Coast Guard says
Scott Giard, search and rescue program director for the Pacific Northwest regional Coast Guard, said that as of Monday around 9 a.m. the Coast Guard is still treating the search as a rescue, rather than a recovery, and that the remaining nine passengers are not presumed deceased.
Noting that water temperatures, the force of initial impact and other factors impact likelihood of survival, Giard said it’s possible that some passengers are still out there.
“If people really are out there and they're alive and they want to live, that's a huge factor,” Giard said, noting that responders are in “full search and rescue mode.”
He added that clear skies and calm winds created “ideal search conditions” early Monday.
The Coast Guard currently has two cutter ships searching the area between Port Townsend and Useless Bay for survivors or debris. A search plane out of Sacramento recently joined the search and a helicopter will arrive later.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected to send divers on the search later.
Officials identified the area of the crash through a number of “good Samaritans” who reportedly saw the plane go down in Mutiny Bay, west of Bush Point on Whidbey Island.
So far, Coast Guard crews have recovered very limited debris from the crash — a seat from the plane, life jackets and a page from a book that included the plane’s tail number.
Giard encourages anyone who finds debris on nearby beaches to call 911.
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are also investigating the crash.
Passenger with similar itinerary recalls turbulent flight
Sonora Jha took off in a seaplane from Cortes Island, British Columbia, early Sunday afternoon, traveling south to Kenmore, Washington, where she landed just after 3 p.m. That itinerary meant her plane was in the air at the same general time and area as the flight that crashed Sunday off Whidbey Island.
The flight was turbulent from the start, she said. It was windy and the forecast showed a chance of thunderstorms. The flight company changed the passengers’ pickup point off Cortes Island at the last minute due to choppy waters. When the plane took to the air, it lurched and dipped throughout the ride. An inexperienced seaplane passenger, Jha posted a “half-playful” photo of the flight on social media, noting her nerves in the air.
But the other passengers were calm, she said. Her friend even nodded off. They reassured her that their pilot had 25 years of experience.
“The pilot looked relaxed,” she said.
When she heard about the crash later in the day, Jha was shocked. She took down her social media post out of respect and is now questioning whether she’ll ever board one of the small crafts again.
“I’m really heartbroken,” she said.
NTSB sends team
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday morning it is sending a team of seven people to investigate the floatplane crash.
Coast Guard: No remains or debris found overnight
Coast Guard crews searched the waters off Whidbey Island on Sunday night and early Monday morning, but did not recover any bodies or debris, the agency said in a tweet Monday. The search will continue Monday and the scene is still considered the subject of active investigation. So far, one body has been recovered, while nine remain missing.
Coast Guard crews on the water Monday morning
U.S. Coast Guard crews were on the water Monday morning, continuing the search for the people who remain unaccounted for after Sunday's crash.
After recovering the body of one female on Sunday, officials have not indicated they've found any of the other nine people who were aboard the plane. The Coast Guard said Monday morning they did not have any additional updates. As of midnight Sunday, the agency said it would remain on scene overnight and bring in aircraft to assist with the search early Monday morning.
As of about 7 a.m. Monday near Whidbey Island's Bush Point boat ramp, at least two boats that appeared to be Coast Guard cutters were visible on the water in the distance. Kayakers gathered and people fished along the beach, which is in a residential area lined with homes.
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