Plane crash lands in Penn Cove

Boaters watch as the Cessna 525 gurgles and sinks in Penn Cove Tuesday morning, not far from the town wharf. The occupants of the plane escaped with only minor injuries. - Christina Tercero
Boaters watch as the Cessna 525 gurgles and sinks in Penn Cove Tuesday morning, not far from the town wharf. The occupants of the plane escaped with only minor injuries.
— image credit: Christina Tercero

The fog had just recently burned away from the Coupeville cove, when suddenly town residents and Race Week visitors on the wharf saw and heard a small jet falling toward them.

At about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, James Ray, 80, and Helcia Graf, 73, lost control of a 1996 Cessna 525 Citation and crashed into Penn Cove. The Idaho residents and their dog were rescued by boaters within minutes, but the $2 million aircraft quickly sank to the bottom of the cove.

An odor of gasoline permeated the air in Coupeville and a small sheen of fuel formed on the surface of the water, but an investigator with the Island County Sheriff’s Office said it was unknown if the plane’s fuel tank was ruptured.

Ray, who is a retired commercial pilot, said if felt as if the “pitch control” locked on the jet. He said he saw that the plane was headed toward the town wharf, so he tried to override the error manually. Able to avoid crashing into the wharf, but knowing that impact with the water was unavoidable, Ray tried to keep the nose of the plane up.

“I worked as hard as I could to figure out what to do,” Ray said.

Graf said she saw the water coming toward her and she just tried to brace herself for the impact.

“You know how some people say your life flashes?” Graf said. “It didn’t flash.”

Coupeville resident Gudiun Bayless said she saw the plane falling. “I just happened to be here and saw the plane coming toward the building. The plane went down and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” Bayless said.

Sue Koleada, who works at the Corroseal Marine Supplies on the wharf, said she also saw the entire whole event unfold.

“Well, sitting here with the view I have, I often see the sea planes coming in. But this one sounded too loud and too low for a sea plane,” Koleada said, adding that she saw the plane go into the water.

“At first I was not too worried because the plane was on top of the water,” Koleada said. “I thought it was a bad sea plane landing. I thought it would just turn around and take off again.”

The plane, however, quickly began to sink.

Jim Kuenic, who was docking at the wharf, said he saw the plane going down from the end of the pier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he and his wife jumped into their boat and rushed to the site of the crash.

By the time he got to the site, two other boats had arrived and the people on those boats had taken Ray, Graf and her dog Max out of the water.

Kuenle said he marked the depth and location of the accident on his boat’s navigation equipment. Only 15 minutes after touch-down, the plane sank completely in 59 feet of water.

“This was a miracle, so a miracle,” said Angelie Graham of Coupeville. “They could have been killed.”

Graham also said it was a miracle that the fog had already lifted and Ray was able to see the wharf and its shops, which he was headed toward.

Ray and Graf suffered only minor cuts, and walked away shaken but grateful that the accident did not turn out tragic as it easily could have. They were headed from Victoria to their home in Ketchum, Idaho, when the accident occurred.

Besides all the recreational boaters, helicopters from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and the Coast Guard responded to the scene of the accident, though there was little they could do.

Russ Lindner, the chief criminal deputy with the Island County Sheriff’s Office, said the plane will have to be brought up from the depth of Penn Cove. The plane, he said, is registered to a Nevada corporation.

The FAA will investigate the cause of the accident.

Lindner said the plane holds 450 gallons of fuel. The small sheen of fuel on the water, he said, is likely caused by the tanks venting in order to equalize the pressure.

Ian Jefferds, the owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, said the plane went down about a quarter-mile to a half-mile from his mussel rafts, but he’s pretty confident that the jet fuel won’t effect the shellfish.

He said he’s working with the pilot, the Coast Guard and contractors to deal with any possible pollution. Foss Environmental is putting a boom around the area of the sheen immediately “in order to contain it,” he said.

Divers from Fidalgo Salvage and Diving and Marine Services out of Cornet Bay are working together to plug the vents in the plane.

Jefferds said he’s happy the crash turned out to be just “a minor problem.”

“It beats the heck out of hauling a couple of bodies out,” he said.

Larry Altose of the Department of Ecology said the department will be working with the owner of the plane and the Coast Guard to investigate and deal with any pollution problems from the jet fuel.

Fortunately, Altose said the fuel is very light, floats on top of the water and evaporates quickly in the hot sun. Currently, the wind is taking it eastward, out of the cove. It’s not likely, he said, that the fuel will make it to shore.

The plane will ultimately have to be removed, but Altose said that will take some time to prepare. “It has to be carefully planned,” he said. “The critical thing is lifting the plane without spilling any more fuel.”

(News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland contributed to this story.)

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