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10 Killed in Grand Canyon Plane Crash

Times Staff Writer

A twin-engine plane loaded with sightseers returning from a flight over the Grand Canyon, about seven miles north of here, crashed on a landing approach at Grand Canyon Airport on Wednesday, killing eight passengers and two crewmen and injuring 11 others.

For some unexplained reason, witnesses said Grand Canyon Airlines Flight 5 drifted to the east of Runway 21 as it approached from the north shortly before 10 a.m. MST, made a U-turn, clipped a power line and smashed into a pine-covered hillside about 300 yards from the runway. A small fire that started at the point of impact did not spread.

‘All Appeared Normal’

“The pilot talked to the tower on the radio, and all appeared to be normal . . . so they looked at other aircraft,” said Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards. “When they looked back, they saw the plane was drifting to the east. The pilot didn’t say anything on the radio.”

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Both wings of the De Havilland Twin Otter were torn off in the crash, but the fuselage remained mostly intact, coming to rest on its left side, right landing gear in the air, with most of the passengers still strapped in their seats.

All of the passengers were adults who reportedly arrived at the Grand Canyon on a motor coach tour, which authorities declined to identify immediately.

“They’re scattered from all over the United States,” said Ronald L. Warren, vice president and general manager of Las Vegas-based Grand Canyon Airlines. “Some were from California. Some from the East Coast. All over.”

The names of the dead and injured passengers were not immediately released by Arizona authorities, pending notification of relatives.

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In Modesto, however, Mayor Carol Whiteside said City Councilman John Sutton and his wife, Donna, bought the last two tickets on the flight and were among the dead.

The Coconino County Sheriff’s Department confirmed reports Wednesday night that the plane was piloted by Capt. William H. Welch, about 45, who had flown for Grand Canyon Airlines for 4 1/2 years. The co-pilot, Keith Crosson, about 30, was hired by the tour company earlier this year. Both men were married and lived at the Grand Canyon.

Rescuers cut a hole in the wreckage to reach victims. Survivors with moderate injuries were taken to Grand Canyon Clinic and later transferred to the Flagstaff Medical Center, about 70 miles away, where the critically injured had been flown by helicopter for treatment earlier.

The sightseeing plane was returning from its second 55-minute flight of the day “with no difficulties reported,” Warren said. The approach was “totally ordinary and routine . . . skies were clear. The winds were light and the temperatures were moderate.

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“There was nothing out of the ordinary.”

But Warren also reported that witnesses gave conflicting accounts of the plane’s approach, some saying the plane never touched the runway and others saying that it may have touched down briefly and attempted to fly out again before veering to the left.

“The best information we have right now is that there was no loss of power,” the airline executive said.

U.S. Forest Service Ranger Lawrence Barreras was among the first of the rescuers to reach the scene. He found one of the pilots lying on the ground near the plane’s cockpit, fatally injured.

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“He was trying to talk. Sort of mumbling, but I couldn’t understand what he said,” Barreras said.

“A lady was walking around in a daze, limping, bleeding and talking to herself. I asked her to sit down on a log, and I tried to comfort her a little bit. She said, ‘I don’t want to take your time. Go help the other people.’ ”

Patrolman Gary A. Lang of the Arizona Department of Public Safety arrived about 20 minutes after the crash.

“We were just trying to get them out of the plane,” Lang said. “Most of them were still strapped in their seats, and most of them had major injuries. Some of them were moaning. We had to use the Jaws of Life (a hydraulic prying mechanism) to tear a hole in the bottom and get into the plane. It seemed like most of them were conscious. There were a lot of severe lacerations and a lot of blood.”

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Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elly Brekke said a National Transportation Safety Board team was dispatched from Washington to investigate the accident.

Wednesday’s crash was the second time in little more than three years that a Grand Canyon Airlines plane crashed in the Grand Canyon area. In June, 1986, another De Havilland Twin Otter collided with a helicopter and plunged into the mile-deep canyon, carrying 25 sightseers and crew members to fiery deaths.

In the aftermath, President Reagan signed legislation banning all flights below the rim of the canyon.

Environmentalists have continued to advocate a ban on aircraft over the canyon.

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The worst crash in the area’s history occurred June 30, 1956, when a United Airlines DC-7 and a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation collided and plunged into the canyon.

Warren told reporters that Wednesday’s flight began about 9 a.m. and covered about 100 miles in a single loop over the eastern part of the Grand Canyon, following a route approved by the FAA.

Two other factors may complicate the NTSB’s investigation of the cause of the crash. The plane was not equipped with either a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder. The so-called “black boxes” are not required on the type of plane that crashed.

Times staff writer John Kendall in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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