A floatplane turned nose down and plummeted into the water. There was an explosion that sounded like a massive firework. There was nothing left and the smell of fuel was overwhelming.
As the search continues for the victims of the Mutiny Bay plane crash that killed 10 people, 911 calls reveal a plane that seemingly went straight down and plunged into the water, followed by chaotic moments immediately after.
The 911 calls were obtained Wednesday through a public records request by the Seattle Times to better understand the flight’s final moments and to gather important details of what witnesses saw in the immediate aftermath, as officials continue to investigate what caused the crash.
Dozens of people made calls to the Island County Sheriff’s Office. Among them were emotional calls from people who believed their loved ones were on board.
The plane, owned by charter service Northwest Seaplanes, was traveling from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands to Renton, when it disappeared from radar around 3 p.m. on Sunday. The Coast Guard located one body but suspended its search Sunday after a fruitless day of searching by air and water.
One woman, whom a dispatcher believed to be among the closest to the crash site, was in a sailboat with her family in Mutiny Bay. She called 911, saying, “Oh no, oh no,” as the dispatcher asked questions. She was crying.
“There’s nothing left,” she said in the six-minute call. “It’s under the sea.”
Another caller described a white seaplane that “plummeted” and “abruptly turned nose down into the water.” She said she saw a splash, then heard an explosion.
“Did you see anything come outside the plane, fly out of the plane or anything besides just the plane go in?” the dispatcher asked.
“(I) saw nothing come out of the plane, just the plane go in straight and fast,” the woman responded.
Calls report several people who weren’t sure what had occurred but were going out on their boats to try to help. Around five to seven boats were on the water searching for people, one caller said from a boat.
A caller told a dispatcher that they found a seat cushion and black plastic in the water and asked whether they should collect it in their nets.
After rescue vessels began searching for the passengers and remnants of the plane, two witnesses to the crash called 911 to redirect searchers. The callers said they saw the plane enter the water exactly halfway between Double Bluff and Bush Point, about a half mile south of where they saw rescue boats initially looking, and with tides pulling the water further south. The operator said she would redirect the searchers.
In calls, dispatchers asked repeatedly if they could see any people or a wing. Callers described limited debris – one man described seeing little evidence of a plane crash – but a strong smell of jet fuel. The smell was so strong that the dispatcher advised one boater to keep their distance in case it ignited.
As reports came out about the crash, dispatchers also heard from family of people believed to be on board. A relative of Ross Mickel, 47, and Lauren Hilty, 39, and their young son, said she had heard about the crash on the news.
“I understand there’s been a plane crash on the island and they are looking for the people,” she said. “I think it’s my family.”
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said on Tuesday evening they have not located the wreckage from the floatplane and do not have enough wreckage to investigate the cause.
“We feel confident that the wreckage will be located, but at this point that effort is still underway,” said Tom Chapman, one of four NTSB members.
Investigations into such crashes often take 18 to 24 months, he said.
NTSB has been working with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to locate the plane with sonar and divers. It is unclear whether the wreckage is in one area or if smaller pieces have been dispersed.
Chapman called for witnesses with information or media relevant to the investigation to contact the NTSB at email@example.com.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.