3 victims ID’d in Illiamna floatplane crash; 7 others survive

UPDATE: State troopers released the identities of the three killed: Tony W. Degroot, 80 of Hanford, California; James P. Fletcher, 70 of Clovis, California; and James Specter, 69 of Shavertown, Pennsylvania.

A Dehavilland Otter crashed after takeoff from a lake in Iliamna on Tuesday morning, killing three clients from a sport fishing lodge. The pilot and six others onboard were injured but survived.

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Residents in Iliamna could see the crash site across East Wind Lake as the sun rose Tuesday morning. Authorities believe the Otter crashed after takeoff with 10 onboard around 6 a.m. PHOTO CREDIT EMMA HILL
Residents in Iliamna could see the crash site across East Wind Lake as the sun rose Tuesday morning. Authorities believe the Otter crashed after takeoff with 10 onboard around 6 a.m. PHOTO CREDIT EMMA HILL

A De Havilland Otter crashed after takeoff from East Wind Lake in Iliamna Tuesday morning, killing three clients from a sport fishing lodge. The pilot and six others on board survived with injuries.

The float-equipped DHC-3T Turbine Otter had ten on board, leaving early for a day’s fishing from the Rainbow King Lodge Tuesday morning. Turbine Otters are retrofitted with a different engine for more horsepower, and seating for nine is a configuration used commonly in the sport fishing industry.

The aircraft took off before daybreak, using Iliamna’s East Wind Lake.

Clint Johnson heads up the National Transportation Safety Board’s regional office in Alaska.

“My understanding is the airplane is roughly about a thousand yards from the departure end, in a stand of trees,” said Johnson. “Obviously substantial damage to the aircraft, and that’s really all we know at this point.”

The NTSB began its investigation Tuesday but Johnson did not want to speculate on the cause of the crash.

One factor that will be considered is that the Otter uncommonly took off in the darkness of the early morning. There’s a known competitive edge amongst a small percentage of Bristol Bay’s many sport fish lodges who jockey to get clients on a handful of rainbow trout hotspots first, often aggressively.

Other Bristol Bay lodges KDLG News spoke with Tuesday indicated they never fly clients in the dark, yet the Rainbow King Lodge Otter sat wrecked an hour and a half before sunup Tuesday.

Johnson says it’s too early to tell if a predawn departure may have played a roll.

“Departure time, weather conditions, daylight conditions, water conditions, there’s a whole host of things we’re going to be looking at,” he said. “It’s way too early to draw anywhere near a conclusion.”

Killed Tuesday were Tony Degroot, 80, and James Fletcher, 70, both from California, and James Specter, 69, of Pennsylvania. The other six onboard and the pilot were injured, some severely, according to authorities.

State trooper Joseph Minnick is based in Iliamna and took the call at about 6:15 a.m. that a plane had crashed. Minnick said volunteers from both nearby villages came in a hurry to help out.

“With an amazing show of support, most of the community of Iliamna-Newhalen were on scene to hike the roughly 400 yards through the tundra to get to the crash site,” he said. “With their efforts, we were able to transport the injured from the site and get them to the local clinic for treatment.”

Sue Anelon, a longtime community health aide, was among the many helping hands who aided in pulling the wounded from the plane.

“We had to load them on gurneys and get them packed out,” she said, noting that the ATVs proved unhelpful.

Two of the wounded were able to walk away from the wreck site, and the rest carried to the village clinic. They were later medevaced to Anchorage aboard an Air National Guard C-130.

Emma Hill lives just across East Wind Lake from the crash site and could see the crumpled wings sticking up as she woke this morning.

“Everybody is sad, I mean, it’s just tragic and even if we don’t know the people, it’s still lives taken and people hurt,” she said. “And the people who have to respond to such an emergency, it really affects them. It’s just sad.”

The NTSB said the first of two investigators arrived on scene Tuesday afternoon.

The Rainbow King Lodge could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Next of kin of the deceased have been notified.