A salvage crew has recovered most of the wreckage from the site where two Washington state residents died in a plane crash about a mile north of Astoria’s Pier 39 last week.
The recovery took place Tuesday, almost a week after the airplane’s owner, John McKibbin — a 69-year-old Vancouver, Washington, man — flew Irene Mustain, 64, of Woodland, Washington, to the coast, where she wanted to scatter her husband’s ashes on his 69th birthday.
“John had done this previously on at least two or three other occasions that I knew, and maybe more,” George Welsh, McKibbin’s friend, who co-owned the plane with him, said.
A pair of small buoys floating a short distance apart — barely visible in the wide mouth of the Columbia River — marked the underwater crash site. One was tethered to the mangled fuselage and tail section, the other to the detached right wing.
Those were the two largest pieces of plane remaining after the impact. The nose and left wing had broken up, the propeller engine had come off and the aluminum skin had shattered, leaving shards spread throughout the debris field.
“There’s chunks the size of quarters down there,” Sgt. Matt Phillips, of the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office, said before the operation.
The private aircraft — a World War II-era North American AT-6A — had taken off in the afternoon of March 23 from Vancouver’s Pearson Field and reportedly went down around 4 p.m., according to eyewitnesses.
Sonar scans and blobs of fuel floating on the river’s surface led the Sheriff’s Office marine patrol to the missing plane’s location Friday.
Divers with the Sheriff’s Office retrieved McKibbin’s body from the cockpit that day but couldn’t remove Mustain from the passenger seat until Monday.
Raising the plane was a bit more complicated.
Using a diver from Cascade Dive Co., a crane team from Bergerson Construction hoisted the plane parts from the river bed and onto a barge. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office marine patrol, working with U.S. Coast Guard personnel, created a 500-yard security zone around the operation.
Afterward, the plane sat on a trailer outside the Holiday Inn Express on Marine Drive. It is scheduled to be trucked on Wednesday to an AvTech Services airplane hangar in Auburn, Washington.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which has launched an investigation of the crash, will document the plane — “the systems, the flight control, making sure that they have the entire aircraft, and seeing if there’s any signs of any sort of pre-crash failure that could have played a role in the accident,” Peter Knudson, a spokesman, said.
In addition, the agency will investigate McKibbin’s background — his flight experience, licensing and ratings, medical history — and the circumstances of the flight, including his communications with air traffic controllers.
The Federal Aviation Administration, a party to the investigation, has said that no flight plan was filed.
“We start with, really, every possibility,” Knudson said. “We rule things out as we find they played no role, and then we sort of narrow down the focus.”
In one to two weeks, the National Transportation Safety Board will produce a preliminary report laying out the facts of the incident. The entire investigation to determine the probable cause could take a year.
Among the items recovered from the river bed was Mustain’s purse, which Sheriff’s Office Deputy Justin Dimmick returned to her family.
The whole process of cleaning up after a tragedy — from the search for human remains, to contacting the family, to information gathering — is by necessity a mechanical and mission-oriented one, but rituals like that can add meaning to the aftermath, comforting both the bereaved and the law enforcement officers involved.
“It reminds you of the purpose of your work,” Phillips said.
A 14-year veteran with the Sheriff’s Office, Phillips was present when McKibbin and Mustain were brought to the surface. In such moments, pure procedure takes over — the need to get the job done.
But even a seasoned officer, a regular witness to human suffering, can only compartmentalize the experience for so long.
“I tell you ... it causes you to think about what’s important in life to you,” he said. “There’s always a point of reflection, once you get everything dealt with and put away.”