Pilot’s body recovered, plane remains at bottom of Lake Superior
DULUTH — It was nearing sunset when they appeared. Three vessels. Three frothing wakes. One carrying a body reclaimed from Saturday’s plane crash.
That was the sum total of a 12-hour day on Lake Superior, Monday, where 14 rescuers from a host of agencies spent the day first trying to raise the wreckage, then settling for the most precious result.
“Getting the wreckage was secondary to getting the victim,” said Capt. Tom Crossmon of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad.
Crossmon led the rescuers through a day he described as Murphy’s Law unbound. Little things went wrong all day. What started out as T-shirt weather, turned on a biting wind and suddenly the rescuers couldn’t find enough clothing, couldn’t keep their tethered boats from slamming and couldn’t hold a good anchor.
The net result from two dives totaling roughly an hour at the 137-foot deep wreckage site was accomplishing the primary mission. The wreckage would wait.
“We’re trying to get a dignified removal here,” said the shore-bound Kolleen Kennedy, supervising investigator for the St. Louis County medical examiner’s officer.
The rescuers, six of them volunteers, including Crossmon, who took a day off work, hoisted the bagged body onto the deck then a gurney as pallbearers would — three to a side. Inside the bag was the body of a man whose single-engine, kit-built Lancair IV vanished from radar late Saturday morning. Crossmon said the identity of the pilot may be revealed as soon as today. The pilot was the lone occupant of the aircraft, which left Duluth International Airport bound for Goose Bay, Labrador, in far eastern Canada. The U.S. Coast Guard said Saturday it received a report from the tower of “a single-engine white and maroon airplane spiraling down with a loss of communications.”
Saturday’s quick response was critical to Monday’s positive result.
“It narrowed down the search area,” Crossmon said, despite a small debris path upon which first-responders could smell the fuel. Debris on the lake surface was about 1.2 miles offshore from Duluth’s Brighton Beach.
A Federal Aviation Administration official was on shore Monday ready to investigate the wreckage, which Crossmon said will now be raised sometime next week. It’s a relatively small wreckage site for an aircraft, he said, visible to rescuers in the boat from remotely operated underwater vehicles. Presently, all the lines and straps are in place to get that wreckage afloat in short order, with Crossmon estimating an hour or two.
The body was pinned in the wreckage, which made it difficult for divers, two of them, to bring up. The retrieving divers were commercial divers from Superior Scuba Center, who worked in concert with a pair of law enforcement divers, who are trained to a strict depth of 130 feet.
The National Transportation Safety Board was not on hand, but is investigating the crash. The NTSB is an independent examiner that will release the ultimate study and findings of the crash.
Monday’s rescue featured Superior/Douglas County Dive, the St. Louis County Sheriff and more. Crossmon praised the effort and compared it favorably to others among the myriad with which he’s been involved.
“It was really a very, very capable team,” he said.