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'Miracle' jet crash spares pilot, passenger

As boaters watch, a Cessna Sea Citation that crashed into Penn Cove Friday morning sinks to the bottom. - Christina Tercero
As boaters watch, a Cessna Sea Citation that crashed into Penn Cove Friday morning sinks to the bottom.
— image credit: Christina Tercero

The fog had just burned away from Penn Cove when suddenly Coupeville residents and Race Week visitors on the wharf saw and heard a small jet falling toward them.

At about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, James Ray and Helcia Graf lost control of a 1996 Cessna 525 Sea Citation and crashed into Penn Cove. The Idaho residents and their dog were rescued by boaters within minutes, but the $2 million aircraft quickly sank to the bottom of the cove.

The odor of gasoline permeated the air in Coupeville and a small slick of fuel formed on the surface of the water, but an investigator with the Island County Sheriff's Office said it was unknown if the plane's fuel tank was ruptured.

Ray, who is a retired commercial pilot, said if felt as if the "pitch control" locked on the jet. He said he saw that the plane was headed toward the town wharf, so he tried to override the error manually. Able to avoid crashing into the wharf, but knowing that impact with the water was unavoidable, Graf and Ray tried to keep the nose of the plane up.

"I worked as hard as I could to figure out what to do," Ray said.

Graf said she saw the water coming toward her and she just tried to brace herself for the impact.

"You know how some people say your life flashes," Graf said. "It didn't flash."

Coupeville resident Gudiun Bayless said she saw the plane falling.

"I just happened to be here and saw the plane coming toward the building. The plane went down and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh.'"

Sue Koleada, who works at Corroseal Marine Supplies on the wharf, said she also saw the whole event.

"At first I was not too worried because the plane was on top of the water," Koleada said. "I thought it was a bad sea plane landing. I thought it would just turn around and take off again."

The plane, however, quickly began to sink.

Jim Kuenic, who was docking at the wharf, said he saw the plane going down from the end of the pier. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he and his wife jumped into their boat and rushed to the site of the crash.

By the time he got to the site, two other boats had arrived and the people on those boats had taken Ray, Graf and her dog, Max, out of the water. Kuenic said he then called 911 and confirmed the accident and the number of individuals involved.

Kuenic said he marked the depth and location of the accident on his boat's navigation equipment. Only 15 minutes after touch-down, the plane sank completely in 59 feet of water.

Angelie Graham of Coupeville said it was a miracle that the fog had lifted and Ray was able to see the wharf and its shops.

"This was a miracle, so a miracle," she said.

Ray and Graf suffered only minor cuts, and walked away shaken but grateful that the accident did not end in tragedy. They were headed from Victoria to their home in Ketchum, Idaho, when the accident occurred.

Russ Lindner, the chief criminal deputy with the Island County Sheriff's Office, said the plane will have to be brought up from the bottom of Penn Cove. The plane, he said, is registered to a Nevada Corporation.

The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the accident.

Lindner said the plane holds 450 gallons of fuel. The small slick of fuel on the water, he said, could have been caused by the tanks venting.

Larry Altose of the Department of Ecology said the fuel from the aircraft will float on top of the water and evaporate quickly in the hot sun. It's not likely, he said, that the fuel will make it to shore.

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