For rescuers retrieving passengers from Y-K crash site, the task was grim and cold

The Lewis Angapak Memorial School stands abve other buildings on Wednesday, April 3, in Tuntutuliak, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Carl Andrew has volunteered with Tuntutuliak Search and Rescue for 38 years. It’s always the hope that when searchers go out, it’s for a rescue, not a recovery, he said.

Last week, on the day of the Yute Commuter Service crash that killed five people, Andrew was at work managing the Tuntutuliak Power Company. At 2 p.m., he was ordering generator fuel when his phone rang. It was the village police officer saying that a plane had crashed nearby and the Alaska State Troopers had given them coordinates.

“I went home, started warming up my snowmachine, got my warm stuff ready, had my wife fill up my thermos bottle — coffee — put a few stuff in my backpack, and went down to the public safety [building],” Andrew said.

He and seven search-and-rescue volunteers, two health aides and one village police officer headed out to find the plane. It had crashed about a dozen miles southwest of the village. They arrived at about the same time as the Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter. By then, it was about 4 p.m. Wind chill temperatures were about 20 degrees below zero, and soon it would be dark. The responders had time to only recover one body.

“That first time we went out, we had no clue who was involved. But after we got back from the first day, I was starting to hear rumors,” Andrew said.

That night, he learned that one of his friends had been aboard. Andrew and the other Tuntutuliak search and rescue volunteers returned the next day, along with many others. The day would be longer and colder than before.

“The pictures of Antarctica, when you look out there and it’s nothing but white and the wind is blowing across, and the snow, that’s what it’s like,” said Alaska State Trooper Joe Whittom.

Trooper Whittom snowmachined from Bethel to the crash site the next morning with other troopers as well as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, and two Bethel firefighters trained to extract bodies from wreckage. The stripped-down equipment made the journey longer than expected.

“It was real windy. Some of the sleds that we had were real light, and so it slowed our advance down as the sleds kept turning over when they’re empty,” Whittom said.

The winds blew a constant 25 miles per hour, dropping the wind chill to nearly 50 degrees below. The open tundra provided no shelter or barriers.

Related: The operators of the flight that killed 5 in last week’s crash had 3 other incidents in 2019

“By the time we got there the next day, everything was starting to drift over and froze up. So there was no smoke. There was no heat,” Whittom said.

The troopers‘ job was to document the scene: where people were sitting, were they wearing seat belts, what protective equipment was available. The cold made writing difficult.

“You know, your dexterity in your hands gets really hard. But due to the equipment that we had, we were able to complete the job,” Whittom said.

The responders loaded the remaining four bodies onto the empty sleds and took them to Tuntutuliak. The names of the four deceased passengers from the coastal community of Kipnuk have yet to be released, but Yute Commuter Service identified the pilot as Tony Matthews. From there, a state plane flew them to Bethel, where they were then loaded onto a commercial plane and taken to Anchorage to be identified. The crashed Yute Commuter Service airplane remains on the tundra.

“We’d just like the families to know thoughts and prayers are with you, and hope that you can get through this time with as much peace as you can,” said Whittom.