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Tragic flight casts pall on remote B.C. community

An Atleo Air Cessna 185 float plane like this one, shown in 2008, crashed into the water off Vancouver Island on Saturday, killing 4 people.

Herb Martin/Herb Martin/The Associated Press

It was supposed to be a routine flight. Eight minutes or less in the air between Tofino, B.C., and nearby Ahousat aboard a single-engine float plane. Good weather for an everyday occurrence for residents of this region on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

But something went terribly wrong on Saturday, just after 12 noon, on the charter flight.

Approaching Ahousat, the plane, with a pilot and three passengers aboard, plunged into the ocean, sparking a desperate race by residents of the First Nations community of more than 1,000 residents to save the occupants of the aircraft.

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Many rushed to the crash scene aboard their personal boats. At least 11 boats were on the water within minutes.

One man even got a line on the overturned plane. Still, the aircraft, operated by Atleo River Air Service, sank into waters more than 10 metres deep.

"There were no signs of any persons in the water. There was no sign of anybody. The only debris that was sighted was some fuel," said Andy Howell, marine co-ordinator for the Victoria-based Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre that dispatched help to the scene.

"Witnesses saw the thing crash. It sank pretty quick."

On Sunday afternoon, RCMP divers removed the remains of the Tofino-based pilot and three passengers, a brother and sister from Ahousat and their cousin, from the wreckage.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, hereditary chief of Ahousaht, joined his home community in mourning.

"Our whole community is deeply saddened by this unexpected tragedy. To the family and friends who are in mourning, please accept the heartfelt sympathies of the Assembly of First Nations. ... As you grieve, know that our hearts and prayers are with you. We wish you courage and strength as you honour the memory of your loved ones," he said in a statement.

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As mourning began for the loss, federal investigators faced the prospect of trying to find answers in the second float-plane accident in B.C. in six months.

Indeed, Bill Yearwood, regional manager of the aviation office for the Transportation Safety Board, pointedly noted that the latest accident came six months to the day after the last one.

On Nov. 29, a Seair de Havilland float plane went down in Lyall Harbor at Saturna Island moments after takeoff on a flight to Vancouver. The pilot and a passenger escaped the sinking wreckage, but six others - among them a six-month-old infant - died.

The victims of Saturday's accident were pilot Damon York, 33, passenger Katrina English, 22, her 28-year-old brother Edward Sam and their cousin Samantha Mattersdorfer, 24.

Mr. Yearwood said he would take the lead on the new investigation because he held a similar role in the last incident. Research for the Saturna Island investigation has been completed, but it will be several months before a report is complete.

"They are separate investigations. If there are commonalities in the findings, of course, we will co-ordinate any safety action that might be required," he said.

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He cautioned against any conclusions about the safety of the float-plane sector in a province where the aircraft are a routine means of transit.

The accident was a tragic mystery to the charter company that ran the plane.

Atleo River Air Service has suspended operations "We're all quite emotional," said company owner Jason Bertin when asked how long the suspension would last. "We've just basically cleared the books for the next little bit. We're just a small company. Everybody's hit really hard. I don't think anybody is ready to go back to work."

The company, billing itself "Tofino's only locally owned and operated airline," runs a pair of Cessna 185 aircraft. Atleo was founded in 1995. Despite its name, it has no connection to Chief Atleo.

"It's just a sad day," said spokeswoman Misty Lawson, her voice thick with emotion. "We're just trying to get through it."

Ms. Lawson said the plane, which dated back to 1978, had been recently inspected and no problems were detected.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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