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10 dead in seaplane crash: Spokane activist, Black Lens founder among victims

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U.S. Coast Guard vessels in a recovery search near Freeland, Wash., on Monday, Sept. 5 — Photo by Stephen Brashear / AP
U.S. Coast Guard vessels in a recovery search near Freeland, Wash., on Monday, Sept. 5 — Photo by Stephen Brashear / AP

Tragedy struck in the skies above Whidbey Island on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4. Without so much as a distress call, a tourist seaplane dove nose-first into the waters of Mutiny Bay. Only pieces of the wreckage have been discovered, along with one body.

According to the Coast Guard, the aircraft was making a routine trip from Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands to Renton Municipal Airport. It crashed just 18 minutes into what should have been a nearly 50-minute flight.

A U.S. Coast Guard boat and helicopter search the area Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, near Freeland, Wash., on Whidbey Island north of Seattle where a chartered floatplane crashed the day before — Photo by Stephen Brashear / AP  

The Coast Guard was called in to search for survivors, but after 24 hours and a search that had covered 1,283 linear nautical miles, it called the search off and notified the families of the missing. Scott Giard, the Coast Guard incident manager, said in a statement that "very little of the aircraft" was discovered.

Echoing the hopeless verdict of the Coast Guard, Terry Ney, the deputy chief of operations for South Whidbey Fire and EMS, said it's "unlikely" anyone survived the crash. "For whatever reason, it went straight for the water, didn't even attempt a landing, went straight down into the water," Ney said in a statement. "At this point, we're not expecting to find any survivors."

The home base for Northwest Seaplanes and Friday Harbor Seaplanes at the Renton Municipal Airport — Photo by Martha Bellisle / AP  

A plane deemed "airworthy"
Investigators are now looking into what may have caused the crash. They are still unsure whether or not it was a mechanical malfunction or pilot error. The seaplane was a de Haviland DHC-3 Otter floatplane, built over 50 years ago, in 1967. Despite the plane's age, Gregory Feith, a former NTSB senior air safety investigator, said it had been approved for flight and updated in recent years to meet safety standards.

In May 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration deemed the plane "airworthy" with an official certificate; however, no information on the state of the plane since 2014 has been made publicly available. The SGN reached out to the company that owned the plane, Northwest Seaplanes, but it declined to comment on the recent events.

Feith also believes the impact of the plane crash caused "substantial" damage and was likely the result of a significant event that prevented a safe landing. Without recovering the wreckage or black box, the Coast Guard is yet unable to determine what went wrong on Sunday afternoon.

Remembering the victims
The pilot of the flight was identified by the Coast Guard as Jason Winters. He was an experienced aviator with a career stretching back to 1997. Winters had been flying with Northwest Seaplanes since 2013. He leaves behind a wife and three children, who have set up a GoFundMe page, which can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-jason-winters-family/.

Sandra Williams with the first issue of Black Lens News in 2015 — Photo courtesy of Black Lens News  

Sandra "Sandy" Williams, a Spokane civil rights activist, was also identified as one of the victims. Williams, who was celebrating her 61st birthday in Seattle, was an active member of the Spokane community and leaves behind a rich legacy. She founded The Black Lens, a BIPOC newspaper in Spokane, co-founded the Carl Maxey Center, and was heavily involved in the activist group Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) and the Spokane branch of the NAACP. Tributes for Williams have continued to flow across social media platforms.

Sandra Williams — Photo courtesy of Black Lens News  

On Tuesday, September 6, Spokane community leaders held a march in honor of Williams. "She did bring Black people together, to bring all people together and for us to support each other," said Michael Brown, a Spokane small-business owner and friend of Williams. "Because when we can come together as a people, we have a beginning. And when we can stay together as a people, we have progress. And when we can work together as a people, we have progress. And that's what she was about."

Patricia "Pat" Hicks, Williams' partner, was another victim of the crash. Hicks was a retired schoolteacher, originally from Los Angeles. In 2020 she moved to Spokane to be closer to Williams. "She loved Sandy, no doubt about that," said Reverend Walter Kendricks of Spokane.

"I know she found her person," said Jac Archer, a friend of the couple and fellow community activist. In the few years she lived in Spokane, Hicks became involved with the Carl Maxey Center, hosting AA meetings and participating in outdoor drumming circles. Friends of the couple say they loved nature and giving back to Spokane's Black community.

Luke and Rebecca Ludwig, a couple from Minneapolis, were also on board the seaplane on Sunday, their family confirmed. They were traveling alone together and left behind their children.

Joanne Mera, a CEO from San Diego, has also been confirmed as one of the victims of the crash. Her family described her as "the life of the party." She leaves behind her husband of 30 years and three children.

Twenty-nine-year-old Gabrielle Hanna was a promising young attorney in Seattle. Her colleagues remember her as "a true talent and a team player," and said she was always quick to smile.

Ross Mickel and Lauren Hilty were another couple on board the plane. Mickel was the owner of a Western Washington winery. Hilty was identified by TMZ as the sister of Broadway actress Megan Hilty. Mickel and Hilty were joined on board by their nearly two-year-old son, Remy, who is also presumed dead. The family has also confirmed that Hilty was pregnant with their second child.

While family and friends mourn the victims of the Whidbey Island crash, those in the tour industry say the recent events have not affected ticket sales. An associate with Viator (who wishes to remain anonymous), another Seattle-based seaplane tourism company, said in a statement to the SGN, "People die in car crashes all the time, and you still get behind the wheel. We've still been very inundated with booking requests."

Investigators are still looking into what may have caused the crash and hoping for more answers in the coming days.