ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A mother on board a plane that crashed in remote southwest Alaska made a frantic phone call for help resuscitating her 5-month-old baby, then left the fatally injured boy to lead searchers hampered by cold and fog to the crash site.
Melanie Coffee, 25, walked nearly a mile toward lights in the village of Saint Marys to meet rescuers Friday night.
“I believe she’s the real hero in this,” said Police Officer Fred Lamont Jr., one of the dozens from his community and surrounding villages who responded to the crash that killed four and injured six.
The Hageland Aviation Cessna 208 turboprop left Bethel at 5:40 p.m. on a scheduled flight for Mountain Village and eventually Saint Marys.
Saint Marys, like scores of other Alaska villages, is off the state road system. People routinely use small aircraft to reach regional hubs where they can catch another plane to complete trips to Anchorage or other cities.
Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers, said the airplane would have been flying in freezing rain with a mile of visibility and a 300-foot (100-meter) ceiling. Lamont described conditions as ice fog with moisture that stuck to vehicles.
The airplane never reached Mountain Village. It crashed around 6:30 p.m. four miles from Saint Marys, said Clint Johnson, head of the National Transportation Safety Board in Alaska.
Lamont, the village police officer, is also trained as a health aide and was working with an ambulance driver Friday. At about 7 p.m., he said, Melanie Coffee called another on-duty health aide to say the airplane had crashed and she needed assistance.
“She was trying to do CPR to her newborn baby,” Lamont said. “She called for help.”
Coffee, who suffered chest trauma, tried whistling to alert searchers, Lamont said. She considered starting a fire to get their attention but eventually decided to start walking toward village lights. A GCI communications tower with a red strobe led her three-quarters of a mile to the village landfill.
“That’s where everyone found her,” Lamont said.
She led searchers back to the crash site. It was not accessible by snowmobile. Rescuers put the injured on stretchers and carried them out on foot to the landfill where they could be transported by ambulance to the village and then flown out.
A Coast Guard C-130 could not land because of fog but the injured were transported by a LifeMed Alaska flight and two other aircraft.
NTSB Investigator Clint Johnson said the cause of the crash has not been determined.