VANCOUVER — A Canadian was among at least four people killed when two sightseeing planes crashed in mid-air in Alaska, the federal government confirmed Tuesday as investigators began working to piece together the cause of the tragedy.
Four bodies were recovered and two people were missing after the float planes carrying cruise ship tourists collided Monday near the southeast Alaska town of Ketchikan, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
Global Affairs Canada said Canadian consular officials in Seattle were in contact with local authorities to gather additional information and provide assistance as needed.
"Our thoughts and sympathies are with the family and loved ones of the Canadian citizen who died in Alaska," the department said, adding it could not identify the victim for privacy reasons.
Canadian passenger was missing
Princess Cruises, a California-based cruise ship company, said the Canadian was among the two missing guests along with an Australian, and the coast guard was continuing to search.
"All of us at Princess Cruises are deeply saddened by this tragic news and we are extending our full support to the investigating authorities as well as the traveling companions of the guests involved," said company spokesman Brian O'Connor in a statement.
Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the company's statement that the Canadian was among those missing.
Watch: Federal investigators are looking into what caused the crash. Story continues below.
The challenge of cold water
The Royal Princess cruise ship left Vancouver for Anchorage on Saturday and is scheduled to return on May 25.
Coast Guard Commander Michael Kahle said crews are searching both the water and the shore of a remote area called George Inlet for the missing.
"For the folks we're looking for, the challenge that they're dealing with is that it is cold water," he told a news conference Tuesday. "Our hope is that ... they can get themselves out of the water as quickly as possible _ in this case, onto a log, onto some debris, or get to shore."
He said the area is en route to the Misty Fjords National Monument, a popular and active spot for sightseeing flights.
Finding all the passengers
One of the planes was a single-engine de Havilland Otter operated by Taquan Air and was returning from a wilderness tour sold through Princess Cruises of the Misty Fjords, the company said.
It was carrying 10 guests from the Royal Princess and a pilot, who were all Americans, the statement said.
The other plane, a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, was operating an independent flight tour carrying a pilot and four guests, of which two were American, one was Canadian and the other was Australian, the company added.
Three of those found dead were aboard the Beaver plane. The fourth deceased person was a passenger of the Otter plane, and the body was recovered during a Monday night search, Kahle said.
The pilot and nine passengers on the Otter were able to make their way to shore, where they were rescued and taken to hospital, he said.
The 10 people were in fair or good condition when they arrived at hospital, said Marty West, a spokeswoman for PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center.
Local emergency responders worked with state and federal agencies and private vessels to help rescue and recover victims.
"It's been a long day and the crews have been working really hard to rescue people and recover the deceased," said Deanna Thomas, a spokeswoman for the local government, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough.
Jerry Kiffer of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad said several of the passengers had been removed from the beach by the time his crews arrived on Monday.
"Obviously, we had some injuries - broken bones, lacerations, back injuries, but everybody was reasonably calm," he told the news conference Tuesday.
The debris field was about 300 metres wide and 800 metres long, with doors, seats and life-jackets strewn in a way that indicated an aircraft had come apart in the air, Kiffer said.
The cause of the crash?
Taquan Air said the company has suspended operations while the crash is investigated.
"We are devastated by today's incident and our hearts go out to our passengers and their families," it said in a statement.
It's not known how the planes collided. U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators arrived from Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon.
Larry Vance, a former investigator with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said the planes would not have been advised by air-traffic control and instead would have been flying under visual flight rules.
"The way it's supposed to work, so you do not have a collision, is you're supposed to keep a real sharp visual watch for other airplanes," Vance said.
In places where congestion is expected, such as tourist areas, operators often develop procedures to avoid crashes, such as flying at a different altitude depending on direction, he added.
"You can assume right off the top that they never saw each other," he said of the Alaska crash.
"The worst-case scenario is they were coming straight at each other and hit head on. It's also entirely possible they were both going in the same direction, and one was climbing up and the other was descending."
'They call it Misty Fjords for a reason'
Steve McCaughey, executive director of the Florida-based Seaplane Pilots Association, said the two types of planes involved are popular and flown all over Alaska and the world.
There's very little or no reduction in visibility that comes with having floats instead of wheels, he said.
McCaughey said there were many unanswered questions and he was awaiting the outcome of the investigation, but he wondered whether atmospheric conditions played a role.
Weather in the area where the crash happened Monday included high overcast skies with southeast winds gusting at 14 kilometres per hour.
"They call it Misty Fjords for a reason," McCaughey said.
Starting next January, the Federal Aviation Administration will require all American aircraft to have tracking devices called ADS-B, which send out signals that show the aircraft's position.
McCaughey said most commercial planes, especially those in high-traffic environments, already have this equipment. If they don't, it would be their last season flying without it, he said.
With files from The Associated Press.
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