UNALASKA, Alaska: A commuter aeroplane carrying 42 people, including a high school swim team, went off the runway while landing Thursday at a small Alaska community on the Bering Sea.
Peninsula Airways said in a statement that two passengers were critically injured and 10 others were receiving medical care. A school official said the swim team was fine and eating pizza shortly after the incident about 5.40pm at the airport in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. Unalaska is home to Dutch Harbor, one of the nation’s busiest fishing ports.
A SAAB-Scania 2000 operated by Peninsula Airways, or PenAir, went off the end of the runway under unknown circumstances, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an email to The Associated Press. He said local authorities reported three crew members on board in addition to 38 passengers, but the airline said 39 passengers were on board.
The Unalaska police department was not taking calling from the media.
Clint Johnson, head of the Alaska region of the National Transportation Safety Board, didn’t return messages left on his cell phone Thursday. However, he told Anchorage television station KTUU that he could not immediately say whether anyone died in the crash, citing the need for better investigation of the crash site hundreds of miles from Anchorage.
“We’ve got a major investigation going here, and there’s all sorts of rumours going around,” he said. “We’re trying to get an investigator down, and the rest of the team will be coming from Washington, DC.”
Messages left with the National Transportation Safety Board were not immediately returned Thursday. PenAir, which is owned by Ravn Air Group, said it’s fully cooperating with the NTSB and has established a family assistance line.
An eyewitness said the flight from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor landed about 500 feet (150 meters) beyond the airport, near the water. Social media posts show the plane’s nose hanging over a rock embankment, but not in the water.
Unalaska police, fire and ambulance crews were at the airport assisting the passengers, who appeared unharmed, the eyewitness, freelance photographer Jim Paulin, told The Associated Press. Some passengers were transported from the airport in an ambulance, but others left with the assistance of residents, including families who planned to host the visiting swimmers.
The plane appeared to have been forced beyond its planned landing area by high winds the community has been experiencing recently, Paulin said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said in a statement that the Unalaska and Dutch Harbor Airport has been closed and transportation department airport rescue and fire personnel have responded to the scene.
The plane was carrying members of a high school swimming team from Cordova, City Manager Erin Reinders said. She said she is also the local swim coach and was at the airport waiting to greet the team from Cordova.
A statement posted on the Cordova School District’s website said the flight carrying swimmers and their chaperones experienced difficulty stopping on the airport runway.
“At present, all students and chaperones are accounted for and are OK, albeit a bit shaken up,” said the statement by Cordova Superintendent Alex Russin.
Russin said he spoke with Unalaska City School District Superintendent John P. Conwell, who assured him the students were safe.
“I spoke again with Superintendent Conwell who stated that the team was together, seemed fine, and were eating pizza. Mr. Conwell assured me repeatedly that the students would be well looked after and taken care of,” Russin said.
Unalaska is about 1,330 kilometres west of Anchorage.