The Coast Guard said it has suspended its search and called off rescue efforts for the nine people who remain missing after the floatplane crash.
The mission will now become a recovery effort, and the agency was bringing out a drone and submersible craft to continue looking for victims and debris from the plane. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has divers at the scene.
The Coast Guard’s decision to suspend an active search and rescue is based on estimations of how long someone could have survived in the water, and the Guard’s inability to scour beneath the water, said Scott Giard, search and rescue program director for the Pacific Northwest regional Coast Guard.
All next of kin have been notified, the Coast Guard said.
The rescue mission included a search area of more than 2,100 square nautical miles, the Coast Guard said.
“It is always difficult when it comes time to make a decision to stop searching,” Captain Daniel Broadhurst, incident management branch chief for the Coast Guard’s 13th district, said in a news release. “The hearts of all the first responders go out to those who lost a family member, a loved one or a friend in the crash.”
Currently, the Coast Guard knows very little about the circumstances of the crash or the state of the aircraft, Giard said. The recovery effort will seek to recover evidence that could help in investigating the cause and circumstances of the crash.
The Coast Guard has recovered several yardslong pieces of aluminum and smaller pieces of debris smelling of fuel, but “very little” of the actual plane had been found as of midday Monday, Giard said. He showed reporters a piece of foam found by a nearby resident. About the size of a saucer, it smelled of fuel and is presumed to be evidence.
“Debris is very finicky with not having a clear video or pictures of the actual crash itself and not knowing how grandiose or extravagant the actual damage was when it hit the water,” Giard said. “It really gives us no idea whether the aircraft completely broke up or maybe if there is a large piece of fuselage underneath the water.”
They believe the bulk of the plane is on the seafloor, about 150 to 250 feet under the surface, Giard said.
Crews will resume rescue efforts if new evidence of survivors is discovered.
Plane dropped suddenly, crashed in a matter of seconds
Before it crashed into Mutiny Bay off Whidbey Island, the DHC-3 Otter floatplane appeared to be in control for the first 18 minutes of its flight from Friday Harbor to Renton, according to Kathleen Bangs, an aviation expert and former seaplane pilot. But when the plane began to lose elevation, it did so quickly, at a pace of thousands of feet per minute, said Bangs, who is the spokesperson for Flight Aware but was speaking in her individual capacity.
The plane was flying at around 600 feet, at a speed of roughly 140 miles per hour, which means its plunge into Puget Sound occurred in just seconds.
“When you see something like that, you think, ‘Could it have been a collision with something, could it have been pilot incapacitation, or could it have been intentional?’ ” she said. “Once you get those out of the way, the thing I’d be looking at is the age of the airplane.”
The DHC-3 is a solid craft with a good reputation, she said, but it was built in the 1960s. Compounding the age is the saltwater in which the plane operates; that can speed corrosion.
Bangs is skeptical the issue was with the engine; a pilot in a seaplane could maneuver the plane toward an emergency landing more slowly if the problem was a power loss.
“They were by no means under control,” she said.
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