Islanders save Matinicus plane crash victims

Twenty minutes in Atlantic before rescue
By Shlomit Auciello | Jul 19, 2011
Photo by: Shlomit Auciello Approximately 48 hours after a Penobscot Island Air Service Cessna 206 airplane sank off Matinicus Island, sending the pilot and three passengers to the hospital, a Cessna 207 takes off from the same airstrip. A search for the 206 that sank approximately 150 yards off the northwest end of the island Sunday afternoon, July 17 has not been completed.

Matinicus — "At the end of the day, you've got 15 seconds to deal with the situation," said Penobscot Island Air Service owner Kevin Waters. He said pilot Robert Hoffman used his experience, training and common sense in responding to a sudden loss of power, shortly after takeoff.

"He's a great guy," said Waters. "The guys above watched over, too."

The plane crash that occurred approximately 150 yards off the northwest end of Matinicus Island Sunday afternoon, July 17 is being attributed to engine malfunction.

"We try to do it right," Waters said. "We don't know what happened until it's investigated." He said he was grateful for the fishermen and others who were involved in the rescue.

"The support from the people we fly and islanders has been tremendous," said Waters. "The Matinicus guys — a lot of people came together."

Reports from Matinicus say almost everyone on the 1.6-square-mile island turned out to help with the search and rescue effort. Matinicus, Abenaki for "far out island," has a year-round population of fewer than 40 people, with a seasonal increase to three or four times that number. The island, 20 miles out to sea from Rockland, is part of Matinicus Island Plantation, a 106.5-square-mile archipelago of eight islands that has an economy based primarily on fishing, and is accessible only by air and water.

Waters said Maine Marine Patrol, at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration, was still searching for the Cessna 206 aircraft, owned and operated by Penobscot Island Air, that crashed in the ocean off the runway at Matinicus Island.

Waters said the plane's emergency beacon automatically sent a signal to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. Each beacon is encoded with the name of its airplane or boat, so Air Force personnel immediately contacted Penobscot Island Air.

Federal agency still investigating

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jose Obregon said July 19 that his agency was still attempting to locate the Penobscot Island Air Service Cessna 206 airplane that went into the ocean off Matinicus Island July 17.

Speaking from his office in Florida, Obregon said he expected to issue a preliminary report in four to five days.

"Depending on the complexity of the investigation, it should take six to eight months for a final report," he said, adding that more complex findings might take one-and-a-half years to complete.

"If we don't find the plane, it's going to be a lot more challenging to complete the investigation," said Obregon.

Some people on Matinicus expressed surprise at that suggestion. They said no divers had been seen from any government agency. About 150 yards northwest of the island airstrip and marked by three buoys is the spot where they say local divers have spotted a wing from the downed aircraft.

According to Penobscot Island Air pilot Rick Brown, the ocean depth at that location is between 80 and 100 feet.

Obregon said the Federal Aviation Agency was handling the on-scene investigation. A preliminary report, providing basic information such as the time and location of the accident, can be found at the website at faa.gov/data_research.

Community effort saves passengers, pilot

"I called the island," said Waters. He said he reached Paul Murray, whose wife, Eva, had gone to the airstrip to fly to the mainland. "He went there and saw her jeep, but no plane," Waters said.

"There was a bunch of fishermen," Waters said of the overwhelming rescue effort that came from Matinicus. He said Robert Young and Clayton Philbrook took their boats out to search for the plane and its survivors.

"When they came around the corner, [the fishermen] still couldn’t see the survivors," said Waters.

"When the word got out, everyone was getting underway to assist," he said. "There was no airplane to see."

Waters sent a plane to search over the area, and an observer on board saw the pilot and passengers hanging onto the fiberglass cargo pod that is part of the underside of the Cessna's fuselage.

"That's when we made the call to [Knox County] dispatch to get people from the wharf onto the water," he said. Waters also called the Coast Guard.

"It's a tough situation," he said. "People are still in the hospital."

The plane's three passengers remain hospitalized after transport to Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, as of July 19.

The passengers were Eva Murray, 47, of Matinicus; Abagail Read, 56, of Appleton; and Karen Ford, 53, of Waterville. The pilot, Hoffman, was treated and released from Pen Bay Medical Center.

On July 18, Ford was at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston in serious condition, according to a hospital spokesman. Read is at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, according to a spokesman there.

On Tuesday morning, July 19, Murray was at Maine Medical Center. According to her daughter Emily, Murray is up and around, but still recuperating from a sore throat and other injuries.

"I have no idea how the islanders coped," wrote Cathy Baker of Spruce Head. Baker is part of the South Thomaston Ambulance crew that responded to Knox County Regional Airport to transport patients, after the crash, and has worked with Murray on previous emergency medical calls.

"Matinicus Rescue consists of Eva, with help from one or two retired nurses like Emily Rantala Ames," said Baker. "The pilots of Penobscot Air are used to coping with medic-evac situations, but this was over the top." She said Murray's grandparents started the South Thomaston Ambulance Service. "We think of [Eva] as a pioneer member of our service," Baker said.

"These are people we know," said Waters. "They are part of our extended family. "When those guys get squared away, it will be better."

Cause of crash under investigation

At approximately 5:52 p.m. on July 17, Knox Regional Communications Center in Rockland was notified that four individuals with serious injuries had been involved in a plane crash and were being transported to the Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head. Ambulances were dispatched to stand by for transport.

According to Knox County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Tim Carroll, the plane took off from the airstrip on Matinicus, climbed to approximately 200 feet and developed engine trouble, resulting in a power loss. Hoffman was not able to regain power to climb, but made an attempt to level the aircraft in preparation for an emergency landing in the water.

Approximately 15 seconds after the engine malfunctioned, the aircraft struck the water.

With the assistance of the injured pilot, all persons were able to exit the aircraft. Hoffman and passengers clung to the cargo pod, as the rest of the plane sank below the surface of the water, until assisted by citizens from Matinicus. Ocean temperatures at nearby buoys measured between 57 and 61. At those temperatures, exhaustion or unconsciousness sets in after one to two hours, and survival is threatened at one to six hours.

Coast Guard Station Rockland Commanding Officer Chief Warrant Officer Sebastian Arnsdorf said no pollution was evident after the crash, and that there was no visible debris. Carroll said the plane sunk where it hit the water, and had not been located.

"It's a very fortunate situation that all four of the people on board survived," said Arnsdorf. "The outcome [in a plane crash] is not normally this positive."

Arnsdorf praised the fishermen from the island for their work during the rescue.

"Their assistance was outstanding and totally appreciated," said Arnsdorf.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation. Once the wreckage is found, it will be brought to shore, said Waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Maine Marine Patrol, Maine State Police, Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are assisting the Knox County Sheriff's Office in the investigation.

The Herald Gazette can be reached at 207-236-8511 of by email at news@villagsoup.com.

Shortly after pilot Robert Hoffman took off from Matinicus Island July 17, he turned west and almost immediately lost power. Hoffman ditched the plane, and he and the three passengers spent close to a half-hour in the approximately 60-degree water, until a volunteer group of fishermen and other islanders were able to pluck them from the sea. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
Fewer than 40 people live on Matinicus Island year round. For those who do, lobstering is the major source of income. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
The harbor at Matinicus, from the air. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
Kevin Water, Penobscot Island Air Service owner, said someone was watching from above when a Cessna 206 airplane malfunctioned and went into the 60-degree water off the northwest end of Matinicus Island July 17. He said fishermen and other island residents should be credited with saving the lives of pilot Robert Hoffman and the plane's three passengers. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
At the dirt airstrip on Matinicus Island, Marlin Hansen, 14, and Stu Parsons, both of Northport, help load lobsters on a Penobscot Island Air Service Cessna 207 airplane. Islanders generally pitch in to load and unload planes, whether the cargo is theirs or not. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
Everything that comes to Matinicus must travel by water or air. When a plane arrives at the airstrip at the northwest end of the island, 20 miles southeast of Rockland, anyone who is on hand helps offload the cargo. When a plane carrying four people crashed in the ocean July 17, that same community spirit led fishermen and other Matinicus residents to stop what they were doing and search for survivors. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
The rescue effort that saved four people from the chilly Atlantic July 17 brought fishermen and residents from all parts of Matinicus to hunt in boats and prepare a safe passage to bring the survivors to the mainland, where they were transported to hospitals. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
A Cessna 206 aircraft crashed approximately 150 yards off Matinicus Island shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday, July 17. (Courtesy of: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Matinicus Island lies 20 miles off the mainland of Midcoast Maine. (Courtesy of: Google maps)
The harbor at Matinicus, from the air. (Photo by: Shlomit Auciello)
Comments (1)
Posted by: Valerie Wass | Jul 18, 2011 18:19

Prayers and thoughts are with the accident victims, families and friends.

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