It was a scene of potential disaster: a fully fuelled airplane crash-landing on a busy city roadway just short of a runway.
Nine people on the flight were injured – two critically – and the craft broke into pieces and burst into flames. RCMP said the plane hit one vehicle as it landed, injuring two people inside. But no one died, and somehow the two pilots avoided a much larger tragedy.
Just 14 minutes into a charter flight, a Beechcraft King Air 100 turboprop with seven passengers ran into trouble and turned back to Vancouver International Airport without declaring an emergency. Online records show a smooth descent, but the pilot of the Northern Thunderbird Air plane didn’t make it to the runway, instead landing on Russ Baker Way, just east of the airport.
The passengers and crew were taken to hospitals in Vancouver and Richmond after the 4:12 p.m. PT crash on the bustling four-lane road in Richmond.
Anna Marie D’Angelo of Vancouver Coastal Health said another person was taken to hospital after being hit with an object that may be linked to the crash. Injuries to those aboard the aircraft include burns, fractures and back injuries, she said.
Coastal Health also said BC Ambulance treated one person at the scene.
Lorelei Sobolik, a 40-year old mother of five, was in stable condition at VGH late Thursday with a shattered ankle and back pain.
Her husband, 42-year-old Cameron Sobolik was taken for X-rays and his condition was not clear. However, family members were told that his condition was not life threatening.
Bev Rushworth, Ms. Sobolik’s mother, said in an interview in a hospital corridor that Mr. Sobolik was heading to Kelowna on business and that his wife was accompanying him.
Their children are between the ages of 13 and 20 years old. She had not yet spoken to them and did not know what happened to the flight.
Witnesses reported seeing rescuers struggling to evacuate passengers and crew from the downed Beech King Air 100 aircraft, which was in flames following the crash about 900 metres short of the runway.
Nikolai Jensen, 14, was walking home from school when the plane went down about 15 metres in front of him, trailing fire.
“I didn’t see any wheels coming down,” he said. “It was just skidding on its belly.”
People got out of their cars and rushed to the plane immediately. They started pulling passengers out, even though there were flames and black smoke shooting out.
“Everyone that got out was helped out or dragged out,” he said.
The youth said he saw people being pulled out of the plane. There was, he said, one person in the cockpit that the Good Samaritans couldn’t get out.
Nikolai was too much in shock to help.
Gordon Turner, the associate dean of the Aerospace Technology Campus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology near the crash site, said he could see some of the activity from his office.
“No wreckage was visible from my vantage point, though you could see where the smoke was coming from,” he said. “There was quite an active plume of black smoke.”
According to flight data on FlightAware.com, the plane turned back from its flight path at 3:56 p.m., just as it flew above Golden Ears Provincial Park, north of Mission, B.C. The aircraft began steadily descending from 15,900 feet, flying at 370 kilometres an hour and turning south. Ten minutes later, it was over Surrey, at just 3,500 feet. The last record, at 4:11 p.m., shows the plane at just 300 feet and just to the east of Russ Baker Way, where it crash-landed.
Vancouver International Airport said the Kelowna-bound Northern Thunderbird Air flight was en route to Kelowna when it ran into undisclosed trouble.
“We just know the pilots reported a problem and were headed back. … Our initial information is that the pilot didn’t declare an emergency and was cleared to land, “ said Bill Yearwood, a regional manager for the Transportation Safety Board.
He said the plane came back on the most direct route. “[The pilot]was cleared to land on that runway and fell just short,” he said.
Bill Hesse, general manager for Northern Thunderbird, declined Thursday night to identify the pilots, their experience or who chartered the flight, suggesting it was too early to provide such information about the crash of the 1970s-era aircraft, which he described as well maintained.
“All of the guys are very experienced, well trained. They’re good guys,” he said of his pilots.
He said he did not have any more information on the accident than had been released to the media by official agencies.
But he was emphatic in saying his Prince George-based operation was dismayed about Thursday’s events. “This is really tough. We’re a small company. We have a high level of experience and a professional approach to the job we do. This is not something you expect. We’re shocked and hoping for the best for everyone.”
With reports from Rod Mickleburgh, Matt Robinson and Robert Matas