Two sightseeing planes carrying cruise ship passengers in Alaska collided at about the 3,300-foot level before they crashed, the National Transportation Safety Board announced after a team arrived from Washington, D.C., to investigate the crash.
The two planes collided in midair Monday, and the Coast Guard raised the death toll to six people on Tuesday after finding the bodies of two people who had been missing. Five of the dead were passengers and the sixth was the pilot of one of the planes.
Federal investigators said the larger plane, a de Havilland Otter DHC-3 with 10 passengers and its pilot, had descended from 3,800 feet feet and collided with a smaller de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, carrying four passengers from the same cruise ship, the Royal Princess, and the pilot.
The federal investigation into the cause of the crash could take months, but a preliminary report is expected to be released within two weeks, said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB.
Coast Guard Lt. Brian Dykens said Tuesday evening that his agency and the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad found the two bodies of those who were missing near the crash site of the smaller plane involved in the collision, a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver.
The planes came down about a mile and a half apart, with some of the debris falling on land near George Inlet, about 8 miles from the cruise ship port of Ketchikan.
The Beaver, the smaller plane, appears to have broken apart in midair, according to Jerry Kiffer, duty incident commander of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad. He said the plane's tail and section of the fuselage were 900 feet from the aircraft's floats, which landed near shore.
The smaller plane was partially submerged in the shore of George Inlet after the single-engine plane overturned and hit some trees before crashing, according to Coast Guard Lt. Brian Dykens. The larger Otter landed in water and sank, he said.
One passenger on the larger plane died, as did two passengers and the pilot on the smaller plane, Princess Cruises said in a statement.
Alaska State Troopers in a statement late Tuesday identified the passengers who died as 46-year-old Louis Botha of San Diego, 56-year-old Simon Bodie from Temple, New South Wales, Australia, 62-year-old Cassandra Webb from St. Louis, 39-year-old Ryan Wilk from Utah and 37-year-old Elsa Wilk of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Also killed was the pilot of one of the planes, 46-year-old Randy Sullivan of Ketchikan.
Botha worked for Nextivity, a cell phone technology company based in San Diego. Following his death, the company's CEO, Werner Sievers, released the following statement:
“It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Louis Botha - son, husband, father, and highly respected and loved colleague. Louis together with his sister and brother-in-law were casualties in the recent midair plane crash over Alaska. Louis is survived by his wife, two sons, his mother and two sisters. We will remember Louis as a man of immense integrity, a trait that he displayed on a daily basis with his family and work colleagues. He was kind – not only when kindness was demanded, patient in the most challenging situations, and a fine leader who always led by example. He will be immensely missed by every single one of his colleagues, vendors, and partners with whom he interacted. His fabric is indelibly imprinted on our company.”
The larger plane was operated by Taquan Air of Ketchikan and passengers booked the flights through the cruise ship as an excursion. The other plane was operated by Mountain Air Service of Ketchikan, and the four booked the flight independent of the cruise ship, Princess Cruises said.
After the crash, the 10 injured people were initially taken to a hospital in Ketchikan. Four patients with broken bones were later transferred to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, spokeswoman Susan Gregg said.
Three survivors were released from PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center in Ketchikan on Tuesday. Hospital spokeswoman Marty West says the remaining three are in fair condition.
The Royal Princess left Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 11 and was scheduled to arrive in Anchorage on Saturday.