Commercial plane carrying high school team crashes in Alaska

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A commuter airplane has crashed near the airport in a small Alaska community on the Bering Sea, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Unalaska, Alaska. Jim Paulin via AP

A commuter airplane carrying 42 people, including a high school swim team, went off the runway while landing Thursday at a small Alaska community on the Bering Sea. Peninsula Airways said in a statement that two passengers were critically injured and 10 others were receiving medical care.

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A school official said the swim team was fine and eating pizza shortly after the incident about 5:40 p.m. at the airport in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. “At present, all students and chaperones are accounted for and are OK, albeit a bit shaken up,” a Facebook post from the school district said.

Unalaska is home to Dutch Harbor, one of the nation’s busiest fishing ports.

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A SAAB-Scania 2000 operated by Peninsula Airways, or PenAir, went off the end of the runway under unknown circumstances, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an email to The Associated Press. He said local authorities reported three crew members on board in addition to 38 passengers, but the airline said 39 passengers were on board.

The Unalaska police department was not taking calling from the media.

Clint Johnson, head of the Alaska region of the National Transportation Safety Board, didn’t return messages left on his cellphone Thursday. However, he told Anchorage television station KTUU that he could not immediately say whether anyone died in the crash, citing the need for better investigation of the crash site hundreds of miles from Anchorage.

“We’ve got a major investigation going here, and there’s all sorts of rumors going around,” he said. “We’re trying to get an investigator down, and the rest of the team will be coming from Washington, D.C.”

Messages left with the National Transportation Safety Board were not immediately returned Thursday. PenAir, which is owned by Ravn Air Group, said it’s fully cooperating with the NTSB and has established a family assistance line.

An eyewitness said the flight from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor landed about 500 feet beyond the airport, near the water. Social media posts show the plane’s nose hanging over a rock embankment, but not in the water.

Unalaska police, fire and ambulance crews were at the airport assisting the passengers, who appeared unharmed, the eyewitness, freelance photographer Jim Paulin, told The Associated Press. Some passengers were transported from the airport in an ambulance, but others left with the assistance of residents, including families who planned to host the visiting swimmers.

The plane appeared to have been forced beyond its planned landing area by high winds the community has been experiencing recently, Paulin said. CBS affiliate KTVA reports winds at the time were gusting at 10 to 20 miles per hour.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said in a statement that the Unalaska and Dutch Harbor Airport has been closed and transportation department airport rescue and fire personnel have responded to the scene.

The plane was carrying members of a high school swimming team from Cordova, City Manager Erin Reinders said. She said she is also the local swim coach and was at the airport waiting to greet the team from Cordova.

Unalaska is about 825 miles west of Anchorage.

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