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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Plane slams into lake; 9 feared dead

FROM BLADE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

A Canadian plane with at least nine men aboard crashed in icy Lake Erie yesterday shortly after takeoff from Ontario s Pelee Island. No survivors were reported found last night.

The passengers, all from Ontario, had been hunting on the island. The single-engine Georgian Express plane took off from Pelee Island airport bound for Windsor about 4:40 p.m.

The pilot radioed a frantic call for help shortly after taking off, but controllers then lost contact with the plane, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Christopher Pasciuto said.

The plane was a 1998 Cessna Caravan 208B with capacity for 12 people, according to Ontario Provincial Police.

Canadian Coast Guard Sgt. John Leclerc said Flight 126 departed the island at 4:38 p.m. and did not arrive at Windsor Airport as expected after the brief flight.

“It should have been 30 or 40 minutes,” he said.

An island resident heard the plane laboring just before the crash, the police said.

A helicopter crew spotted the wreckage of the single-engine plane nose-down a mile west of the island at 7:30 p.m. The helicopter was unable to land on the lake ice because of safety concerns, Lieutenant Pasciuto said.

He said the 140-foot cutter Neah Bay had arrived from the Detroit area to join the search. He said conditions were snowy, and crews found no survivors.

Constable Deb Mineau of the Ontario Provincial Police in Essex, Ont., said the men had gone to the island for a day-long hunting trip.

Ms. Mineau said police were working to notify the passengers families of the crash. The identities of the people on board the plane were not immediately known, although Ms. Mineau said they were from the southwestern Ontario communities of Chatham, Windsor, and Kingsville. The pilot is from the Toronto area, she said.

The search was delayed by freezing rain and the cold.

“Originally they couldn t get the helicopters off the ground because of the weather conditions, so they dispatched the vessels, but there s ice in the water as well,” Ms. Mineau said.

The plane sank between 11 and 11:30 p.m., she said. The search area was 20 miles north of Sandusky in Canadian waters.

A team of investigators from Ottawa was to be sent to the crash site this morning, said John Cottreau, a spokesman for the Transport Safety Board of Canada.

Ford Crawford, a resident of Pelee Island who had hunted with the men yesterday, said they had been his friends for 25 years.

“I was at school with these guys,” Mr. Crawford said, declining to be interviewed further.

Georgian Express President Paul Mulrooney said 10 people - nine passengers and a pilot - may have been on board, but it was unclear whether one passenger made the flight.

Mr. Mulrooney brushed aside suggestions that weather conditions may have played a role in the crash.

“It s very capable of flying in this weather,” he said, adding that the plane logs 8,000 to 9,000 hours in all kinds of weather.

“The weather was poor down there, but from what we know, it is flyable type of weather,” he added.

Mr. Mulrooney did not identify the pilot but said he was experienced with the Cessna Caravan and had worked for Georgian Express for more than a year.

Mr. Mulrooney said his Mississauga, Ontario-based company has flights between the island and Windsor up to three times daily.

”It s only used in the winter months when the island is icebound and they can t use the ferry to get back and forth,“ he said.

The region has been locked in bitter cold, with temperatures in the 20s. The water temperature in Lake Erie, where waves were running 3 feet to 5 feet, was 33 degrees.

Bob Wernecke, a pilot who flies between Ohio s resort islands just south of Pelee Island, said he made six flights during the day before deciding at 5 p.m. that the low cloud cover and freezing rain had made conditions unsafe.

“It s nasty,“ he said by phone from Put-in-Bay. “It s freezing drizzle, kind of bad.”

He said the cloud cover was 200 feet, meaning he could not see the top of the 352-feet Perry s Victory and International Peace Memorial tower on Put-in-Bay.

“It was icy on my last trip to Port Clinton,” he said. “It was very minimal, and on the way back to Put-in-Bay it was time to quit.”

The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

Located in the western Lake Erie basin about six miles north of Kelleys Island, Pelee Island is a popular summer destination but lightly populated in the off-season.

Mainlanders travel to Pelee Island in January and February to hunt pheasant and rabbit, said Gerald Gemus, owner of Home Bed and Breakfast who farms 200 acres on the island.



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