Basically, He Was Falling From the Sky,’ Says Eyewitness of Pilot
OURAY COUNTY – A spring break trip was cut tragically short for five travelers from Gadsden, Ala., Saturday, March 22, when the small private plane they were traveling in crashed into Ridgway Reservoir on its final approach to Montrose Regional Airport.
Although the victims’ names have not yet been officially released, pending retrieval of their bodies and the Ouray County Coroner’s autopsy report, newspapers in Alabama and Florida have identified them as Katrina Vinzant Barksdale, her two sons Xander, 8, and Kobe, 11; Barksdale’s nephew, Seth McDuffie, 14, and her boyfriend, Jimmy L. Hill, who is believed to have been piloting the plane.
Salvage experts with a private contractor from Greeley are expected to mobilize at Ridgway State Park Thursday, March 27, to recover the plane’s wreckage and the victims’ bodies. Ridgway State Park remains closed, with security on site, said Park Ranger Kristen Copeland.
According to eyewitness accounts and radio traffic following the crash, the aircraft plunged nose-down into the reservoir, about 90 feet offshore, near the Dallas Creek Campground on the south end of the reservoir Saturday at around 2 p.m., setting into motion a complex, treacherous multi-agency effort to locate the victims and the plane in the frigid, murky water.
From the beginning, due to the nature of the crash, rescuers feared that all lives on board had been lost. On Monday, rescue divers confirmed this was the case, when they located all five victims’ bodies inside the fuselage of the plane wreckage, which was resting upside-down on the bottom of the reservoir, 60-70 feet underwater.
Due to the extensive damage and orientation of the plane, the divers were not able to recover the bodies, which will remain within the wreckage until it can be safely brought to shore.
Ouray County Sheriff Dominic Mattivi reported at a press conference Monday afternoon that the plane is partially buried in approximately three feet of silt.
“It is intact, except for the tail section,” he said. “One wing is severed, but still attached to the fuselage.”
WEDDING DISRUPTED BY PLANE CRASH
Colona resident Steven Vining was among the eyewitnesses to Saturday’s crash when, shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday, he and his wife, Deb, were joining about one-hundred wedding guests at a home located a few hundred feet above the Ridgway reservoir.
Vining said it was snowing lightly when he and other members of the wedding party first heard loud engine sounds seeming to come from the clouds directly above them.
It sounded like the plane was doing “acrobatic maneuvers,” Vining said, adding he could hear the engine power up, and then wind down.
“It sounded like they were doing circles or something,” he said, “over and over again,” making sounds like when “a plane dives towards the ground and pulls up.” The engine was “screaming” loud, he said, sounding “like what you’d hear at an airshow.”
Vining said the plane finally emerged from the clouds in a “flat spin…around and around like a pie plate.” Its nose was down slightly, and the plane appeared out of control.
“I kept thinking that he would pull out of it,” Vining said of the pilot’s downward spin, but he soon realized that he was witnessing a fatal accident.
Within moments of falling from the clouds, the plane disappeared from view below the vantage point overlooking the reservoir. “Three to four” seconds passed, Vining said. Then he heard a dull thud.
Vining said he couldn’t tell if the plane had crashed into the reservoir or into the surrounding trees.
“I could tell he was fighting with it,” Vining said of the pilot’s battle to regain control of the plane. “I thought he would point the nose down to get some speed, but he was in a flat dead spin…basically, he was falling from the sky.”
Wedding guests called 911 with reports of what they had seen and heard.
Vining said roughly five minutes passed, and then the pastor marrying the couple told those in attendance to pray for those on board.
“We saw a fatality, and then, within a few minutes, witnessed two people enter into holy matrimony. It was a really eerie feeling,” Vining said.
A FLIGHT GONE AWRY
Online flight-tracking records show that the plane took off at 8:30 a.m. from the Northeast Alabama Regional Airport in Gadsden, Ala., for Bartlesville Okla., and departed Bartlesville at 12:12 p.m. for Montrose. It crashed just 23 miles south of Montrose, about five minutes before its estimated time of arrival at Montrose Regional Airport.
According to the FAA registry, the plane was a 1996 model Socata TBM700 – a fixed-wing aircraft powered by a high-capacity turboprop engine, designed to hold six to seven passengers. It is registered to Gadsden Aviation LLC out of Rainbow City, Ala.
Live flight tracker data on the website flightaware.com showed the plane cruising at an altitude of 26,000 feet, following a northwesterly flight path from Bartlesville, Okla. toward Montrose Saturday afternoon.
At 1:35 p.m., it began a steady descent, dropping approximately 10,000 feet over the course of about 10 minutes. It accelerated from 200 to 250 knots, and then entered a period of prolonged deceleration. At 1:48 p.m. the plane leveled off at 15,900 feet but continued to lose speed.
Then, beginning at 1:57 p.m., records show the plane rapidly losing both altitude and speed, plunging from 15,900 to 11,300 feet at a speed of 128 knots. Just prior to 2 p.m., the data abruptly stops.
“He lost 5,000 feet in about a minute and a half. He was coming down like a rocket,” said Montrose Regional Airport flight instructor and former Continental Airlines pilot Bill Swartz, who interpreted the data. “His speed dropped off pretty quickly there, too, and with a loss of altitude that is not normal. He was coming out of the sky like crazy.”
Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board (the federal agency that will conduct an investigation into the cause of the crash), confirmed that the pilot was in contact with air traffic control on his approach to Montrose Regional Airport. “He reported that he was in a spin just before losing communications,” Knudson said.
An NTSB investigating agent was scheduled to arrive in Ridgway this Wednesday.
The standard investigative procedure in a fatal plane crash probes “pilot, machine, and environment,” Knudson said, first taking into account the pilot’s flight experience, training, current medical issues, and “anything within a 72 hour background that could have prevented the pilot from safely operating.”
The investigation will also delve into flight planning, air traffic control and communication factors, as well as looking closely at the plane itself – both forensic evidence as well as research into any known maintenance issues.
Finally, the investigation will probe weather conditions that the pilot may have encountered that could have contributed to the accident.
“We start with everything on the table and gradually eliminate possibilities as they check out,” he said.
A preliminary accident report may come out within a month, but the final report could take up to a year to produce, Knudson said.
WEATHER MAY HAVE BEEN A FACTOR
Joe Ramey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, whose Grand Junction office is responsible for issuing Terminal Area Forecasts for Montrose Regional Airport and eight other airports in the region, said that the cold portion of a Pacific storm system was moving through the region on the day of the accident, with lots of “showery activity.”
Weather balloon data from March 22 showed “deep moisture from about 14,000 feet up to 22,000 feet,” Ramey said. “There was a good moist layer there in the middle portion of the atmosphere,” which the pilot may have encountered as he descended on the approach to Montrose Regional Airport.
It was an unusual day, from a meteorological point of view, Ramey said, “There were
interesting things going on in those clouds. It was a very convective day, with vertical clouds producing snow and grapple above the valley bottoms. It was snowing off and on pretty hard.”
Ramey, who was skiing on Grand Mesa that day, reported that he observed “very showery, very icy, wet dendritic snowflakes…with a lot of rime icing on them.”
Rime is a fairly unusual phenomenon in this area, he said. “These are super-cold water droplets. When they come in contact with something, they immediately freeze into ice crystals.”
In short, it was the kind of day, Ramey said, “that kind of screams ‘icing.’ If that aircraft got into a good convective cloud, with a strong up and down draft, the up draft would have super-cooled water droplets turning to ice.”
If a pilot detects ice on a plane’s wings, the first thing to do is to look for an alternative altitude either by climbing or descending to get out of the weather conditions, flight instructor Swartz said.
If the ice becomes too extensive, “it destroys the airflow over the wings and the airplane stalls and starts coming down. There’s not hardly anything you can do about it. Even at full power, if there is a ton of ice, it is going to come out of the sky without a doubt.”
Radar images show that there were no weather “returns” in the lower portion of the atmosphere in the Ridgway area within 10-15 minutes of the crash period. In other words, “Radar wasn’t picking up rain showers or snow showers at that time in the Ridgway area. But who knows what they flew through 10-15 minutes before, from the east,” Ramey said. “Icing was occurring that day for sure up in the clouds, but what happened with this aircraft, who knows. I don’t.”
TREACHEROUS RECOVERY EFFORT
The multi-agency effort to locate and recover the crash wreckage and the victims’ bodies has been fraught with difficulty and danger.
Using park ranger boats, rescuers began scouring the waters for signs of debris and fluid leakage from the aircraft Saturday, and succeeded in retrieving the tail of the plane which had broken off from the sunken fuselage.
Recovery operations on Sunday focused on locating the fuselage in the reservoir. Rescuers used side-scan sonar to pinpoint the exact location of the plane. Colorado search and rescue dogs worked to give investigators a starting point for utilizing the side-scan sonar (typically used to locate missing vessels).
On Monday, using video images taken by remote camera to assist in their efforts, divers made contact with the plane and confirmed that the bodies of the victims were inside.
San Miguel County Undersheriff Eric Berg, part of the dive rescue team, described treacherous diving conditions at the reservoir, where high altitude and cold, silty water combined to create a “very technical dive, well beyond recreational limits at sea level.”
Not only was the water frigid at just 34-35 degrees, but the high altitude location of Ridgway State Park – at 6,800 feet above sea level – put divers at considerable risk of contracting decompression sickness (also known as “the bends’”), Berg said.
Underwater visibility was so poor that divers quickly lost all visual references, and could barely see their gauges. “It takes great focus to tell up from down,” Berg said. “It becomes a very dangerous environment in which to work.”
The community of Gadsden, Ala. has been in mourning since Sunday for the five who are presumed to have perished in Saturday’s deadly crash.
Local media sources have described Jimmy Hill as a well-respected local businessman and community leader who was the president of a tool manufacturing and job contract shop founded by his father. He served on the board of a local bank and an industrial development authority, and was described by friends and family members as a “quiet, humble man who has recently been through family trials and relied on faith to get through them,” the online news outlet AL.com reported.
According to Hill’s LinkedIn profile, he was an instrument-rated pilot. Several unofficial sources have suggested that he had only recently started flying the Socata.
A memorial service was held at the Barksdale boys’ school, Mitchell Elementary, on Sunday evening, The Gadsden Times reported. A teacher there described the boys as “bursting at the seams with life and energy.” According to the Lake City Reporter, the children’s father is former professional baseball player Shane Barksdale.
Their mother, Katrina Barksdale, was a native of Lake City, Fla., and worked as an office manager for her brother-in-law’s endodontist practice in Gadsden, according to newspapers in her native Florida. Local newspapers in Alabama described her as athletic, outgoing, and “full of life and love for others.”
“Her laughter and smile are infectious and her love for God is very real and applied to her everyday encounters,” friend Tabitha Bozeman told AL.com.
Seth McDuffie was the 14-year-old son of Barksdale’s sister and brother-in-law, Robin and Keith McDuffie of Gadsden, the Gainesville Sun reported. He was an 8th grader at Westbrook Christian School in Rainbow City (a suburb of Gadsden), where students, teachers and counselors also gathered in mourning on Sunday night.
“Seth was an awesome young man,” Principal Cindy Greer told The Watch. “He was one of the most respectful young men I have ever met. He was an honor student and loved to make his friends laugh. Seth loved the Lord, his friends and his family. His passing is a tremendous loss to our school.”
The Gainesville Sun reported that Barksdale often flew with Hill or with her brother-in-law and employer Keith McDuffie,.
“They would travel that way when coming home to Florida to visit family and friends here,” her cousin Kristy Stalnaker told The Gainesville Sun. “It was quicker and easier than driving sometimes.”
Jeff Overstreet, a county commissioner from Etowah County, Ala. (of which Gadsden is the county seat) reached out to commissioners in Ouray County this week.
“He wanted to personally thank us for the county’s efforts in recovering his dear friend and the passengers on the plane, and for our efforts to end the nightmare and bring closure to the families,” Commissioner Lynn Padgett said.