‘You’re just looking for survivors:’ Witnesses describe moments plane crashed on Gabriola Island

WatchThere were several witnesses to the explosive crash on Gabriola Island. Witnesses describe a terrifying scene as the plane spun out of control.

Witnesses who saw the deadly plane crash on Gabriola Island Tuesday night described a chaotic scene moments after the small aircraft hurtled to the ground.

The BC Coroners Service and the RCMP confirmed Tuesday there were multiple fatalities when a piston twin-engine aircraft went down around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday on the northwest corner of Gabriola Island, east of Nanaimo. There were no survivors.

Maritime Forces Pacific and the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Victoria said that three people were on board the small aircraft. It left Bishop Airfield in California at some point on Tuesday.

The aircraft was attempting to land in Nanaimo and crashed on approach. It is unclear whether there was a mayday call but it is believed it was a scheduled landing, not an emergency landing.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) says it is investigating the crash. Three TSB investigators arrived at the crash site near Ricardo Road and Decourcey Drive Wednesday morning.

David Holme, who lives on Gabriola Island, said he knew there would be a crash as he saw the plane in trouble.

“We saw the lights spinning around in a circular motion…and it veered off and went kind of down the road and nosedived directly into the ground,” David said, adding it appeared the plane was completely out of control.

“I came running into the house, saying to my wife, there’s been a plane crash, phone 911, and that’s when I ran out the door.”

READ MORE: Several people dead after plane crashes on Gabriola Island

David said the instinct to help took over.

“And that’s when I realized that I’m standing in the middle of all this fire in my slippers. You don’t think about that. You’re just looking for survivors. You’re looking for any signs of life and I couldn’t find anything,” Davide said.

Gord Bell also saw the plane in distress.

“I said to myself what the heck is that guy doing,” Bell said.

“And then at the end of that thought we heard a thump and instant silence.”

CBC is reporting 61-year Alex Bahlsen, a flying instructor who lived in Mill Bay, was the pilot who died in the crash. 

An online flight tracker showed a twin-engine Piper Aerostar disappeared off the tracker at around 6 p.m., north of Gabriola Island. The flight appeared to have been travelling north from the U.S. on the tracker.

The BC Coroners Service says has determined that a small aircraft crashed in a wooded residential area on the northwest corner of Gabriola Island. There is a significant debris field at the crash site.

David said what remained in the approximately 100 square-foot debris field was so badly charred, there was no way to help those on board.

Coroners service spokesman Andy Watson said in a statement that the BC Coroners Service, in co-ordination with the Transportation Safety Board and RCMP, is gathering information from the scene to establish the identities of the deceased. Confirmation of the number of deceased and their identities from officials will occur once identification has been definitively established, the BC Coroners Service said, and their family members have been notified.

This process may take several days.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Chris Manseau said the area where the plane went down is primarily a residential neighbourhood but police were not aware of any injuries on the ground.

Gabriola Island, which has a population of about 4,000, is a 20-minute ferry ride east of Nanaimo.

There were six ambulances on the 6:25 p.m. ferry to Gabriola Island to respond to the crash. The Gabriola Island Fire Department was the first crew on scene and there were two ambulance crews on the island that also responded. BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said there was no impact on the ferry schedule.

“They were spinning above my cottage,” said witness Randi Lynch.
 “And then 2 minutes later they’re not there anymore.”

The site was cordoned off in advance of Transport Safety Board investigators arriving.

Bette Lou Hagen, who lives on Gabriola Crescent, one property over from where the crash occurred, said the crash happened behind her property through the trees.

“I heard a roar of an engine, which didn’t sound like a car engine. It was really loud and then I heard a crash, and a little bit after that I heard an explosion,” said Hagen.

“I was reading and I jumped out of my chair and my cats ran to hide. My husband jumped out of his chair. We didn’t know what it was and we were really scared.”Hagen, who has lived on the island east of Nanaimo for 23 years. says everybody is in shock and they are trying to get information from their cellphones.“But it’s just really tragic. It has never happened before,” Hagen said.

Gabriola Island resident Sandra Holme says the loss of lives is devastating.

“[That] something like this could happen so close to home,” Sandra Holme said.

With files from The Canadian Press 


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