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Majority of wreckage recovered from Whidbey Island plane crash; Sandy Williams’ body among recovered

{span}A barge holding wreckage from a floatplane sits on anchor in Mutiny Bay on Thursday off the west coast of Whidbey Island.{/span}  (Karen Ducey/Seattle Times)
{span}A barge holding wreckage from a floatplane sits on anchor in Mutiny Bay on Thursday off the west coast of Whidbey Island.{/span} (Karen Ducey/Seattle Times)
By Sarah Grace Taylor Seattle Times

The body of Spokane civil rights activist and journalist Sandy Williams has been recovered nearly a month after she was presumed dead in a floatplane crash near Whidbey Island, family confirmed Friday.

Island County Emergency Management Deputy Director Eric Brooks said Thursday afternoon that he wasn’t able to confirm the number of victims found.

Williams’ partner, Patricia Hicks, was on the plane, but it wasn’t clear Saturday whether she is among those whose remains have been recovered. Williams’ family said a private memorial service for family and friends is planned.

Williams, founder and publisher of the Black Lens, the Spokane area’s only African American-focused publication, was heralded by community members and Gov. Jay Inslee as a “leader of the Black community.”

Hundreds of mourners flocked to the First Interstate Center for the Arts at a public memorial last month on what would have been Williams’ 61st birthday.

Shortly after news of her presumed death broke in early September, state Rep. Marcus Riccelli called Williams “a warrior for all those systematically oppressed,” adding her death “is a tragic loss for Spokane and our state.”

Washington Commerce Director Lisa Brown called Williams a “strong beautiful person (and) leader of the Black community.” “(Commerce) is honored to have supported projects she envisioned,” Brown wrote on Twitter.

Closer to home, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said at Williams’ public memorial that she was “a fearless speaker of truth” who also exuded “radical empathy.”

As the search for victims continues, so does the search for the plane.

About 80% of the plane, including the engine, has been recovered and pulled to the surface using remotely operated vessels, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said Thursday. Homendy is among the crew on barges leading the recovery efforts that began Tuesday in a shipping channel off Whidbey Island.

The plane was a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter, a regular in the Seattle area’s floatplane ecosystem, bound from Friday Harbor to Renton on Sept. 4 when it plummeted into the water, causing a large splash and a loud boom. Onlookers and first responders in the immediate aftermath found only small pieces of debris, a few personal items and the body of 29-year-old Gabby Hanna, with no trace of the other nine people aboard the plane.

“We are thankful for all those responsible for recovering the plane. This is a crucial step towards bringing closure to the families,” Alisa Brodkowitz, an attorney at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender, said in a statement Thursday. The Seattle firm is representing the families of Hanna and of a Medina couple, Ross Mickel, 47, and Lauren Hilty, 39, and their 22-month-old son, Remy, who are among the victims.

“We all so hope that the recovery effort is successful and that everybody’s loved ones are recovered and the cause of this horrific crash is determined,” Hanna’s parents, David and Marcie von Beck, said in a statement. “We miss our dear Gabby every day, with all of our hearts. She was truly a shining star.”

“Words cannot adequately convey the depth of our grief,” said a statement from Hilty’s family. Hilty was due to give birth to son Luca in mid-October. “The past three weeks have been absolute torture as we continue to anxiously await the retrieval of the plane and, more importantly, our loved ones. Our hope is this retrieval process is successful, but we know this is just the first step on our long, painful road ahead.”

As crews look to recover the “four corners” of the airplane – the nose, the tail and both wings – Homendy said they are pleased with the progress made .

“The recovery operation for wreckage is going really well,” Homendy said, noting that crews of between 20 and 23 people from NTSB, the Navy, Island County sheriff personnel and subcontractors have been working in 12-hour shifts around the clock since Tuesday.

Despite dozens of witnesses narrowing down the crash site, it took officials more than a week and multiple types of sonar to locate the plane because of the depth and current of the channel in Mutiny Bay.

Homendy said the recovery is halted for some hours of the day due to powerful currents under the surface.

“There are hours where we can’t have the ROV in the water because we can’t move it forward,” she said, noting crews have to wait for “slack tide,” or a period when there is limited or no horizontal movement in the water, to resume efforts.

Once the recovery is complete, NTSB will lay out wreckage in a secure location and experts will begin combing through debris to find potential causes. The process can take between 12 to 24 months, according to Homendy, as the NTSB assesses “man, machine and environment” to determine probable cause of the fatal crash.

In the meantime, she noted, the NTSB will share any potential urgent safety information with the Federal Aviation Administration, including if there is reason to be concerned about any part on the de Havilland Canada DHC-3 Otter.

“If we have a concern regarding the fleet, we’re going to do something. We’re not going to wait,” Homendy said.

NTSB officials released a preliminary report that noted the plane had undergone a 100-hour inspection – a routine examination done every 100 flight hours – just three days before the incident and had completed a trip earlier the same day. According to the report, inspections were completed in August and September of the control column lower assembly and elevator control tabs, as required by FAA airworthiness directives.

The FAA established the directive in 2004 for the elevator control tabs – small hinge mechanisms that contribute to the plane’s elevator system, which helps a pilot control the plane’s pitch, or the vertical movement of the nose. It came after reports that the control rod to the elevator servo-tab system could detach from the tab, causing the servo tab to “flutter” on DHC-3 Turbine Otter floatplanes with a turbine engine installed.

The fluttering servo tab has been linked to multiple incidents involving DHC-3 aircrafts.

Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell and The Spokesman-Review’s Alayna Shulman contributed to this report.

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