May 14, 2019 / 10:35 AM / 7 months ago

Search for victims ends after mid-air crash of Alaska tour planes; probe begins

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Searchers found the bodies of the last two Alaska seaplane crash victims on Tuesday evening, after a hunt through the debris and frigid waters following a mid-air collision that killed six people and injured 10, officials said.

The two missing, an Australian and a Canadian, had been among 14 passengers from a Princess Cruises ship who boarded two seaplanes operated by separate tour companies in the town of Ketchikan on Monday, the cruise line said.

“This is not the outcome we hoped for,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Stephen White, offering the searchers’ condolences to the families of the dead.

The dead, three men and three women, ranged in age from 37 to 62, officials said. All the dead were identified late on Tuesday, and 14 of those on board the planes were American.

The discovery of the bodies closes the search at the scene where the two seaplanes crashed after colliding over the inlet waters near Ketchikan, in southeastern Alaska, said Matthew Schofield, a U.S. Coast Guard officer.

Work at the crash site will now shift to an investigation into what led the two planes, which were ferrying Princess Cruises passengers on sightseeing expeditions, to strike each other and fall into the waters of George Inlet.

The round-the-clock search lasted 27 hours and covered 93 nautical miles, officials said.

A team of 14 National Transportation Safety Board investigators has been sent to the site and divers will start working on Wednesday to pull up the wreckage of the two planes.

U.S. Coast Guard crew searches for survivors from downed aircraft in the vicinity of George Inlet near Ketchikan, Alaska, U.S., May 13, 2019. Courtesy photo by Ryan Sinkey/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS

The NTSB team began investigating on Tuesday and is unlikely to determine the cause during the week it will spend at the scene, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told a news conference.

Ten people survived but were injured in the collision, which took place over open water during daylight, the Coast Guard said. The dead included one of the pilots.

Three of the injured were in serious condition and seven in fair condition, Dr Peter Rice, medical director of the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, told a separate news conference.

The water temperature off Ketchikan on Tuesday was 48 Fahrenheit (8.9 C), the National Weather Service said. The expected survival time in temperatures of 40F to 50F (4C to 10C) ranges from one to three hours, the United States Search and Rescue Task Force says on its website.

The investigators will collect information from the survivors, the Federal Aviation Administration, other witnesses who might have been in the area, flight logs, training records and other sources, including the wrecked planes, Homendy said.

“We still have to recover the planes and then we have to look at those,” she said. “It takes some significant work to really understand how the two came together.”

All the planes’ passengers arrived in Ketchikan on the cruise ship Royal Princess during a seven-day trip between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Anchorage, Alaska, Princess Cruises said.

Ten passengers and a pilot were aboard one float plane, a de Havilland Otter DHC-3, operated by Taquan Air. Four passengers and a pilot were aboard the second float plane, a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, run by Mountain Air Service of Ketchikan.

A Coast Guard Air Station Sitka MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew hovers while searching for a survivor from a report of two aircraft colliding in the vicinity of George Inlet near Ketchikan, Alaska, U.S., May 13, 2019. Courtesy photo by Ryan Sinkey/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout via REUTERS

The crash site at Coon Cove about 300 miles (480 km) south of Juneau, Alaska’s capital, is near a tourist lodge that runs excursions to the nearby Misty Fjords National Monument.

Ketchikan-based Taquan Air said the plane was returning from a sightseeing tour of Misty Fjords at the time of the crash.

Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez

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