6:20 p.m. This story has been updated with information about the recovery effort and weather conditions at the crash site.
Yute Commuter Service has released the name of the pilot killed in a plane accident on Thursday, Feb. 6 along the lower Kuskokwim River that also killed four passengers. The pilot, Tony Matthews, was flying a Piper PA-32R from Bethel to Kipnuk that crashed about 11 miles southwest of Tuntutuliak at approximately 11 a.m.
“He was a great, great person,” said Yute Commuter Service General Manager Nathan McCabe about Matthews. “It’s very unfortunate. The guy was a very happy, enthusiastic person. All I can say, to be honest with you, is he’s a great man, happy, a great worker. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”
The names of the four passengers are being withheld pending notification of next of kin. In a statement, McCabe said, “The cause of the accident is unknown at this time. The [National Transportation Safety Board] will conduct a full and thorough investigation. Yute Commuter Service offers our deepest condolences of the families of those lost in this unfortunate event. Yute Commuter Service is committed to do everything possible to provide safe and reliable air travel within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.”
McCabe said that the airline is offering counseling to its staff, and gave workers the day off on Friday, Feb. 7.
“We told them to please take the day so they could gather their thoughts. It impacted our community very, very strongly,” McCabe said.
McCabe said that his office is gathering information to give to the NTSB so they can investigate the crash. He said that all Yute planes have been grounded since news of the accident, and he was not ready to say when the airline would resume flights.
The four deceased passengers are from the coastal community of Kipnuk. The Kipnuk school did not hold classes on Friday. In a voicemail, the school said they are not returning calls until Feb. 11.
“At this time, we are in mourning as a staff and as a community. We ask that you honor our request to leave a message,” the school voicemail said.
An Alaska State Troopers online dispatch said that one of the deceased was recovered from the scene on Thursday. On Friday, personnel from multiple organizations traveled to the area to recover the remaining victims in negative 40 degree wind chills. The recovery crew included four troopers, volunteers from Tuntutuliak, and NTSB workers. The Bethel Fire Department loaned extraction gear, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service loaned an airplane to the effort. The deceased will be sent to the State Medical Examiner’s office in Anchorage for identification. While at the scene, troopers also recovered bags of mail that the plane was carrying.
The area is under severe weather conditions, including a wind chill and winter weather advisory, and a blizzard warning. Bethel has the closest weather station to the crash site, which is located about 40 miles downriver. Midday on Thursday, when the crash occurred, National Weather Service Forecaster Michael Kutz said that weather conditions in Bethel included low clouds, low visibility, intermittent light snow, and freezing fog. Temperatures were about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind chills were between 6 and 10 degrees below zero.