TEAM INSPECTS GLACIER CRASH SITE
By Robert Kowalski And Natalie Phillips, ADN 6/11/99
Juneau ---The Coastal Helicopters Inc. aircraft that crashed on the Herbert Glacier, killing six tourists and the pilot Wednesday morning, "just augered in," according to an Alaska State Trooper who reached the site shortly after the crash.
"He went in at an angle. He just hit and went in eight to nine feet and rolled over. The tail was folded over," said Trooper Bill Welch. "He hit and skid about seven feet."
Welch said the crash site is on a fairly flat and very stable stretch of the glacier about 20 miles north of Juneau. A team of investigators spent Thursday afternoon at the crash site, studying the wreckage and working to recover the bodies. They also began the long process of trying to piece together what happened.
It is too early to speculate on what went wrong, Matt Thomas, the National Safety and Transportation Board investigator heading up the probe, said Thursday morning.
"Three things can cause accidents: man, the machine or the environment," Thomas said. "I can't rule out any of the above right now. It is wide open. You look at everything, and eventually the picture paints itself."
James Wilson, president of Coastal, said early Thursday evening that "nobody knows what happened." He said the NTSB directed him not to speak about the crash. His voice choked up and his eyes teared as he sat in his office alongside the Juneau airport terminal. He said that he wished he could turn the clock back "24, 48 hours."
"My sympathy goes out to the families of those who were killed," Wilson said.
Names of five of the seven victims were released by state troopers Thursday: Dennis Blanzy, 47, and his wife Annette, 46, of Gregory, Mich., traveling on Holland America Line's Ryndam cruise ship; and Douglas Jenny, 55, and his wife, Carol, 52, of Cypress, Texas, traveling on Princess Cruises' Sea Princess. Both ships were docked in Juneau at the time of the crash. The pilot was Nigel Cook, 29, of Prescott Valley, Ariz.
The two others, unidentified Wednesday evening, were also passengers on the Ryndam.
Shortly before the crash, the helicopter and a second one from the same company had landed on the glacier and allowed passengers out for a 15-minute walk, Thomas said. Both helicopters loaded their passengers about the same time and were continuing their tours, which included crossing over to the Mendenhall Glacier on the return to the Juneau airport.
Cook took off first. He was in radio contact with the second aircraft. They were "gib-gabbing away like pilots do," Trooper Welch said.
Cook did not report any aircraft troubles or concerns about the weather, Thomas said. But five minutes later, when the second pilot tried to raise Cook on the radio, he got no answer. Minutes later, the second pilot flew over the wreckage of Cook's helicopter. From the air, the pilot could see no survivors.
He gained altitude so he could make a radio call and reported the accident just before 11 a.m. Wednesday, Thomas said. Then he headed back to the airport with his passengers. The second pilot later told investigators that flight weather conditions weren't great but were stable. It was overcast, and the lighting was flat.
About a mile a way, two helicopters belonging to TEMSCO were on the ice field at a dog mushing camp set up for tourists. They heard the radio call about the crash and, along with a musher trained in emergency medicine, immediately flew to the crash site and confirmed all aboard were dead, Thomas said.
Trooper Welch arrived at the scene around 1 p.m. He said he was able to secure and photograph the crash site on Wednesday but didn't want to pry into the helicopter until NTSB investigators arrived. Thomas and an NTSB colleague arrived in Juneau late Wednesday afternoon, but inclement weather kept them from getting to the glacier.
Finally, because he didn't have gear for an overnight stay and he feared the weather might turn worse, Welch left the crash site shortly after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Early Thursday, Welch, Thomas, a medical examiner and three officials from the Federal Aviation Administration gathered at the Alaska Army National Guard hangar where a Blackhawk helicopter waited to take them to the crash site.
Low-hanging clouds kept them in Juneau until shortly after noon. They continued working at the site into the evening.
Thomas said he asked for an investigator from American Eurocopter Corp., which distributes the Aerospatiale AS-350 series helicopter, and an investigator from Turbomeca Grand Corp., which makes the helicopter's engine, to assist in the investigation.
Both companies are based in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area. The investigators were expected to arrive in Juneau late Thursday.
"They become an instant resource for technical information," Thomas explained.
He said investigators would have to remove the bodies then excavate around the aircraft. He expected the helicopter wreckage to be ferried off the glacier within the next couple of days for further examination.
The Aerospatiale AS-350B type helicopter like the one that crashed Wednesday has been involved in 43 other accidents in the United States since 1986, according to NTSB records.
Coastal has continued flying its helicopters since the crash occurred, Wilson said.
"Fly every day," he said. "You have to go on. ... What else can you do?"
Other Juneau helicopter flightseeing services said they were booked solid Thursday with tourist clients.
On average, the four companies the U.S. Forest Service permits to carry tourists on helicopters to the Juneau Icefield and its glaciers make about 100 landings a day during summer, said Joni Packard, spokeswoman for the Juneau Ranger District. That averages about 500 to 600 passengers daily on flightseeing, dogsledding and trekking excursions over the ice field.
The helicopter tours cost from about $155 to $335 per person for trips that last from one hour to about four hours. They are popular with cruise passengers.
Four ships docked in Juneau on Thursday, carrying 2,000 crew members and an estimated 5,400 tourists. Many of them eagerly turned over 50 cents to an 11-year-old Juneau girl standing on the dock selling the local newspaper, which carried a banner headline about Wednesday's helicopter crash.
Most tourists interviewed late Thursday said they had either not heard about Wednesday's tragic accident or seemed unconcerned.
Betty Barnett of Texas said she was watching CNN in her
cabin aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise's Vision of the Seas Wednesday night when
she saw a crash report. It didn't bother her. She had arranged for a helicopter
tour of the Mendenhall Glacier, as she did on a previous trip to Alaska. She was
looking forward to taking her 17-year-old grandson traveling with her and her
husband. But their helicopter trip was canceled because of bad weather Thursday.