Heading Out on Recovery Mission

Search and Rescue volunteer Travis Locke heads for a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter with an unidentified Coast Guard officer on Jan. 15. The flight dropped off SAR volunteers Locke, Dave Lamas and Bob Dill at the plane crash site 12 miles southeast of Skagway. Dimitra Lavrakas

Airplane crashes into mountainside
Pilot killed, no other passengers on board

Skagway Air Service pilot Joel Mathis, 39, was killed Jan. 15 when the Piper Cherokee Six he was piloting flew into a treed pinnacle on the east side of Lynn Canal about 12 miles southeast of Skagway.
The plane took off at 8:10 a.m. from Skagway for a routine run to Haines to pick up passengers for the through flight to Juneau. The original 8 a.m. flight had been held 10 minutes for SAS Vice President Mike O’Daniel to go to the end of the Ore Dock and look down the canal to determine if it was clear enough for the flight.
“We had driven down to the Ore Terminal and it looked good all the way to Taiya Point,” O’Daniel said.
The National Weather Service said the weather at the time in Haines was: “800-foot overcast, four miles visibility, freezing rain and fog, and a four-knot wind.”
About three miles south of Skagway at 8:15 a.m., Mathis radioed that he was “inbound” on the flight to Haines that usually takes about 10-15 minutes – depending on the wind.
“The Haines office called our Skagway base at about 8:30 a.m., and said the plane had not arrived, and asked for our office to check to see if the plane had turned back,” said O’Daniel. “Office staff drove out to the Skagway airport and didn’t see a plane, so I launched a plane at 8:50 a.m. En route I asked the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) flight service to confirm a flight plan – it had been filed for Juneau – and flight service said they had picked up an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in the Haines area.”
O’Daniel and a mechanic flew to the Taiya Point area and picked up the transmission from the ELT. The signal was strong, so O’Daniel knew the plane wasn’t in the water. His plane couldn’t fly into the areas they needed to search. They called the FAA to advise the U.S. Coast Guard in Sitka to launch a search, and Skagway Search and Rescue and TEMSCO Helicopters.
On return, O’Daniel went up in a helicopter with TEMSCO’s Chris Maggio at 9:48 a.m. to fly grids near Haines, Lutak Inlet, Taiyasanka Harbor, and east of Taiya Point.
At about 10:30 a.m., they narrowed the signal as being between two ridges between Low Point and Sawmill Falls on the east side of Taiya Inlet. The crash site was located about 200 feet above the water, but they couldn’t set down, O’Daniel said.
Meanwhile, geared-up SAR members Bob Dill and Dave Lama along with Mark Larsen sat by the radio at the TEMSCO building, looking out the window down the canal, waiting for a possible rescue to be launched from there. At the Fire Hall mid-morning, “Coop” Cooper came by to ask if he was needed for an underwater dive, and was told the plane was not in the water.
By 10:55 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter was hovering over the site, but could not land because of the terrain.
The Coast Guard chopper flew on to Skagway to pick up three SAR members to be lowered near the site. Dill, Lama and Travis Locke left Skagway Airport at about noon in the Coast Guard chopper. Alerted by the unfamiliar sound of the big blades, people pulled up to the airport fence on Alaska Street to watch the SAR team load onto the chopper.
The Jayhawk helicopter carried the mountain rescue team to the site and then returned to Skagway to refuel before returning to pick the team up before dark. On the ground, the team radioed that they were now on a recovery mission, meaning the pilot did not survive the crash.
Around 5 p.m., back at the Fire Hall, viewing the Coast Guard Web site with pictures of the crash site, Greenstreet and Fire Chief Martin Beckner said it was useful to see the physical terrain and assess difficulties.
The men had to “wiggle” their way through some big boulders to get to the plane, he said, which was about 75 feet below the snow field where they were lowered by sling harnesses.
Dill said the plane was on its side, about 100-150 feet off the water. They had to crawl around the tail, because they could not stand on the debris to move about.

From left, SAR members Greenstreet, Dill and Fire Chief Martin Beckner check out a photo of the crash site on a state trooper website. DL

From looking at the way the plane impacted, Dill said it was headed south, hit the treed area, spun east, and was stopped by a big spruce, knocking it off its roots.
They disconnected the ELT so its transmission would not be taken as another distress signal, Dill said. They could not retrieve Mathis’ body because the terrain was too rugged, the distances between the ridges and the snow field too perilous.
Jan. 16, a team of 11 people motored down the canal in Skagway Harbormaster Ken Russo’s 16-foot boat and Dave Hunz’s 41-foot cabin cruiser. Hunz volunteered his boat for use and will be reimbursed by the State Troopers for his fuel, Beckner said.
The team also included Greenstreet, Dill, Kathleen Joy, L.C. Cassidy, Mike Konsler, Andus Hale, Mark Larsen, Trevor Locke, and Jason Haddock.
By 1 p.m. Jan. 16, Mathis’ body was bound for the State Troopers office in Haines, then to the state crime lab in Anchorage for an autopsy. His remains were then cremated and returned to Skagway for today’s service.
O’Daniel said Mathis was a good pilot.
“He made really good decisions in the air,” O’Daniel said. “We never had any complaints about him. He had good people skills and was easy to talk to.”
The death is a blow to the small, tightly-knit company, which has a good safety record - there hadn’t been a fatal accident since 1989.
Mathis had moved up to Skagway for the winter after flying out of Juneau the past two summers.
“He had a good work ethic, and worked well with everyone here,” O’Daniel said. “He was the perfect small company employee – always willing to help with anything at the hangar or around the office. He probably got that from his upbringing in New Mexico, where his parents ran a small trucking company.”
Last Friday, Scott Erickson and Larry Lewis, investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, arrived from Anchorage to climb to the site and inspect the wreckage.
Larsen and Konsler accompanied them on the climb up from the water.
Typically, NTSB reports take a long time to come in, said Greenstreet.
True, said Erickson by phone from Anchorage. He was not even able to make a guess.
“Hunches, conclusions and speculations are all bad words,” he said.
The climb to the crash site was just to get a first-hand look at the scene, the real work will begin when the plane is brought down to a place where they can disassemble the parts, he said.
In responding to the call last Friday to accompany the investigators, Joy rolled her car at Mile 6.5 on the Dyea Road.
Beckner said she was fine after the accident.
“It was up on the driver’s side and hit a rock wall on the hill side,” Beckner said. “She’s hoping and I’m hoping it’s driveable.”
The week was a continuation of what has been a busy time for the Skagway Volunteer Fire Department.
Beckner said they’ve received 20 calls for service in the first 18 days of the new year.
“That’s unusual for this time of year,” Beckner said.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, memorial gifts should be made to Skagway Search and Rescue.

NPS hopes to buy Rapuzzi collection
City, other federal agencies may chip in

Phyllis Brown, custodian of the George and Edna Rapuzzi Collection, has indicated she might sell it to the National Park Service in cooperation with the City of Skagway, it was revealed at the Skagway City Council meeting Jan. 17.
The City has signed a provisional letter of support to the Rasmuson Foundation for obtaining a possible grant for the sale. The City’s initial cost would be the $25,000 paid to Judy Munns, director of the Skagway Museum, to work with the NPS on the initial inventory and assessment of the collection, and planning for its future.
With a price tag of $1 million, the collection includes 4,500 gold rush and early Skagway memorabilia from the Rapuzzis and Martin Itjen, Jeff Smith’s Parlor and the W.W.II Commissary Building on Second Avenue, Brown’s residence on Second and Main, and the Meyer Building and the YMCA at Fifth and State (also known as the old Ford garage).
“I would very much like the collection to stay in Skagway,” said Brown by phone from San Diego, Calif. “I think my aunt and uncle wanted it to stay in Skagway.”
The Parlor and Commissary would be stabilized, not used, said Theresa Thibault, chief of resources with the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. The home would most likely become housing, the buildings on Fifth, a resource center.
Thibault pointed out that the project would create jobs both during renovation and when completed.
Thibault, former director of the Wrangell city museum, approached the Rasmuson Foundation last fall, and then Munns, Mayor Tim Bourcy and City Manager Bob Ward in mid-December.
It is envisioned the entire project would take $5 million over a period of five years to complete.
The Rasmuson Foundation would provide the initial funding for acquisition of the collection, she said. But there are other tagalong grants that could come of it.
The Save America Foundation, started under the Clinton administration, could kick in matching funds. The Department of Housing and Urban Development could provide money for restoration of the buildings. And the Economic Development Authority has grants for tourism-related projects.
“We’re looking at all the different pieces,” said Thibault.
Diane Kaplan, the foundation’s director, was due to be in Skagway yesterday and today to look over the collection and the properties, but was unable to make it and will come in March, Thibault said.
At the end of the presentation to the Council, Mayor Bourcy said he wanted to send it to the Civic Affairs Committee for consideration.
“There are going to a lot of issues,” he said.
Councilmembers Dave Hunz and J. Frey voiced the main one.
“There have been some concerns about the National Park Service taking more property off the tax rolls,” Hunz said and Frey concurred, but also said the collection should stay here “for the benefit of the community.”
“If the City had it, it’d be off the tax rolls,” said Councilmember Colette Hisman.
The Park Service offered an olive branch.
“I think all issues of property ownership are open to discussion,” said Park Superintendent Bruce Noble. “We can talk that over.”
Councilmember Stan Selmer regretted the loss of the Pullen Collection in the 1970s and said he didn’t want to see it happen to the Rapuzzi Collection.
“The Rapuzzi Collection is an extensive record of town life in Skagway for the past century,” said Munns. “George Rapuzzi, White Pass master machinist, literally collected the nuts and bolts of everyday life in Skagway from the Gold Rush to the present.
“If it was produced by human hands, electrical or motorized – a part of it or the whole rig is in the Rapuzzi Collection.
“Perhaps not knowing what was important, George Rapuzzi collected it all.”

Ore shipment through Skagway – maybe
Cantung Mine reopens, shipping route not final

It was looking good for a while.
With the reopening of the Cantung Mine, about 192 miles northeast of Watson Lake just over the border into the Northwest Territories, things were looking up for ore trucks to roll again through town.
The Yukon News reported Jan. 9 that the shipments would come through Skagway, but in checking with the company, the Skagway News learned the decision has swung back and forth over the last week.
A conference call between the mine’s owner, North American Tungsten Corp. of Vancouver, and buyers was supposed to seal a decision last Friday, but it didn’t.
The two options being considered, said company president and CEO Udo von Doehren by phone from Vancouver, is by truck through Edmonton, Alberta, then by rail to the East Coast or by truck through Skagway and then barge. Von Doehren said the tungsten ore will be bagged and put into shipping containers.
As of early last week, Alaska Marine Lines President Alex McKallor thought his company was out of the running.
“Skagway will see none of it,” said McKallor. “It’ll be trucked to Edmonton, then by rail to the East Coat for a light bulb factory in Pennsylvania and to Russia.”
That could still change.
Even if the extracted ore concentrate does come through Skagway, it will not revive the Ore Terminal.
The quantities are too small to warrant opening the terminal up again, said Dave Hunz, whose company, Mineral Services, managed the terminal when ore was shipped through Skagway from the now-closed Faro lead-zinc mine.
The Cantung Mine will produce about 300,000 metric tons annually, with about 25,000 metric tons shipped monthly. The company figures the mine will produce for three years.
A heavy metal, tungsten is used for the filament in light bulbs, for the tips in armor-piercing bullets, and for the points in high-speed tools.
North American also owns the Mactung Mine, northwest of Cantung, that also has large tungsten deposits and if reopened, could produce 400,000 metric tons annually for 30 years, according to the company. –DL

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