ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The door to a nose baggage compartment popped open just before a small plane crashed, killing six, one of four survivors told investigators.
The Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain crashed about 50 yards off the end of a Kodiak Island runway after taking off Saturday afternoon, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. The wreckage was recovered Sunday.
Five followers of a dissident sect of the Russian Orthodox Church died when the chartered plane went down in the shallow harbor after taking off. The pilot also was killed.
Four people survived the crash Saturday, and one of them told investigators that the door to a baggage compartment in the nose of the small plane had popped open.
"This does not signal an end of our investigation of the crash by any means, but it at least played a part in it," Clint Johnson, an investigator with the NTSB, said Sunday.
The passengers were members of Alaska's community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who had been fishing in Kodiak and were taking a short flight north to Homer to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas at home on Monday.
The pilot of a float plane that had been taxiing nearby said he pulled the four survivors aboard. One of the men was bleeding profusely from a head wound, and all of them were hysterical, saying that family members were in the submerged plane, Dean Andrew said.
"Once I got the four in, I could see down into the fuselage, but I couldn't see any signs of life," Andrew said. "I had an emotional time. I thought about diving in but I had to keep the plane running to hold it steady against the wind."
Andrew said he heard on his plane's radio that 50-year-old pilot Robin Starrett said he needed to return to the airport. Andrew said he could tell by Starrett's voice that something serious was going on.
"I decided to stay put in case I was needed," Andrew said. "I had a feeling something would happen."
Johnson said a survivor, 32-year-old Karnely Ivanov, told investigators that just as the Piper got airborne, the baggage area door opened at the nose of the plane on the pilot's side. That prompted Starrett to try to return to the airport.
Beside Starrett, also killed were five passengers from Homer: Stefan F. Basargin, 36; Pavel F. Basargin, 30; Zahary F. Martushev, 25; Iosif F. Martushev, 15; and Andrian Reutov, 22, officials said.
Iosif Martushev was a ninth-grader at Kachemak Selo school, and Reutov and Zahary Martushev were former students there, said Randy Creamer, the school's principal. The small school sits near Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in one of three area Old Believer villages.
Creamer described Iosif as an artistic student who loved to make sketches of moose, snowmobiles and fishing boats. Zahary Martushev was married and had several children, and Reutov got married last fall, Creamer said.
Besides Ivanov, the survivors were identified as Feodot Basargin, 33; Andrean V. Basargin, 25; and Anton Rijkoff, 30. The flight was operated by Kodiak-based Servant Air.
Russian Orthodox Old Believers split from the main Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century in protest of changes made at that time. Their members are scattered throughout Russia, Asia and the Western Hemisphere. About 1,500 are believed to live in Alaska.
"Everybody knows everybody. It's a tragedy," said Greg Yakunin, an Old Believer and fisherman. "They were all friends of mine."
Two survivors were flown to Anchorage for treatment, including Feodot Basargin, who was in fair condition, said John Callahan, spokesman for Providence Health and Services Alaska. The conditions of the other three were not available, but Alaska State Troopers said the two who remained in Kodiak were treated and released.
Servant Air serves half a dozen communities on the large island in south-central Alaska, 225 miles southwest of Anchorage. Kodiak and Homer each have populations of roughly 6,000.