Matt Peterson and his stepfather didn’t need to discuss whether to respond after a floatplane plummeted Sunday into the Puget Sound.
The pair sprang into action after the plane nose-dived into Mutiny Bay off Whidbey Island, prompting a delayed boom.
“I think they were rowing before 911 even answered my call,” said Peterson’s sister, Becky Carter, who also witnessed the crash. “They didn’t hesitate. They just knew to help. A lot of the neighbors did too.”
Peterson and Bill Messner, his stepfather, were among at least five boats of witnesses who raced to the crash site in hopes of saving those aboard the aircraft, which was bound for Renton from Friday Harbor.
“We never stopped looking at the crash,” said Peterson, a Magnolia resident. “We were just laser focused on where it went in and knew we needed to help.”
When Messner heard the boom, he came to the beach. He and Peterson, who saw the plane go down, leapt in a dinghy — headed for Messner’s moored ski boat.
The duo set off, joining other witnesses on various fishing boats and whalers.
There was no substantial evidence of the plane other than the strong fumes of fuel “bubbling up” from beneath the surface, Peterson said.
“We didn’t see any smoke or any fire when it first hit or when we got out there. And there were no big pieces of the fuselage or floats from the plane,” Peterson said. “It was just the little pieces that floated to the top.”
The witnesses pulled small pieces of foam, flotation devices, a logbook and other scraps from the plane. They found personal items, including a passenger’s credit card and a child‘s shoe.
Within minutes, Peterson and Messner spotted red fabric in the debris.
“When I saw that, that’s when I was sure it was unsurvivable,” Peterson said.
The fabric was clothing on a woman’s battered body — the only body recovered from the scene so far.
Peterson and Messner then alerted the Coast Guard over high frequency radio and tethered the body to their boat while continuing to look for other evidence.
Peterson had been texting his wife, who asked for an update.
His reply: “No survivors.”
“There’s nothing left”
Noël Jackson called 911 from a nearby sailboat, the first vessel to arrive, and tearfully relayed her findings to dispatchers: “There’s nothing left.”
She and her husband, Dave Jackson, were on their way home to Portland after spending time in the San Juan Islands.
During their trip, friends and family took similar seaplanes to visit them in the islands, including their daughter one week earlier.
After being delayed by a ferry and traffic earlier Sunday, the Jacksons were on the water, about 100 yards from the plane as it began plummeting.
“I thought it might be landing, but it was coming in at a 45-degree angle in a shipping channel, so I knew it must be an emergency,” Dave Jackson said.
After glancing away to navigate, he noticed the nosedive, the splash and heard the loud sound described by others. He said he didn’t hear any sound of the plane’s engine before the impact.
Carter, who was vacationing from Everett at her family’s cabin, said the crash didn’t cause any visible smoke or flames.
“It was a huge splash, and then the plane was just completely gone,” she said.
“The obvious thing to do”
With all those aboard the flight now presumed dead and most of the wreckage still missing, Peterson said Tuesday he is grappling with the situation. The body, the shoe and other personal details of the wreckage have left him traumatized.
Above all else, he said he wishes their efforts could have changed the outcome.
“I went with Bill because it was the obvious thing to do, but at some point I did hope I would get to actually help someone,” he said.
The Jacksons are similarly struggling to make sense of what happened.
“It’s wrong or it just feels so unfair for people who were not doing anything wrong to have everything suddenly taken away,” Dave Jackson said.
“And to be the last people to ever see someone, or evidence of someone,” Noël said, struggling to complete her sentence through tears. “Then there was just nothing there. They were just gone.”