OURAY COUNTY – Rescue divers at Ridgway State Park today successfully located the bodies of all five victims inside the wreckage of the small private plane that crashed into the Ridgway Reservoir Saturday.
Due to the extensive damage and orientation of the plane, the divers were not able to recover the victims’ bodies, which will remain within the wreckage until it can be safely brought to shore.
A retrieval team from Beegles Aircraft Service, Inc., of Greeley, Colo., is expected to arrive at Ridgway State Park on Wednesday to initiate the excavation effort.
The plane, located Sunday, is resting upside-down on the bottom of the reservoir, about 60-70 feet underwater. At a press conference Monday afternoon, Ouray County Sheriff Dominic Mattivi described its wreckage as being partially buried in about 3 feet of silt. “It is intact, except for the tail section. One wing is severed but still attached to the fuselage,” he said.
San Miguel County Undersheriff Eric Berg, part of the dive rescue team, described treacherous diving conditions at the reservoir, where high altitude and cold, silty water combine to create a “very technical dive, well beyond recreational limits at sea level.”
Not only was the water frigid at just 34-35 degrees, but because of the high altitude of this area (approximately 6,800 feet), divers were at considerable risk of contracting the bends, he said. Underwater visibility was so poor that divers quickly lost all visual reference, and could barely see their gauges. “It takes great force to tell up from down,” Berg said. “It becomes a very dangerous environment in which to work.”
The rescue team used video images taken by remote camera to assist in efforts to locate the victims.
Although the victims’ names have not yet been officially released, newspapers in Alabama identified themSunday as businessman and pilot Jimmy L. Hill,; Katrina Vinzant Barksdale and her two elementary school-aged sons Xander and Kobe and their teenaged cousin, Seth McDuffie. All were from Gadsden, Ala.
The National Transportation Safety Bureau and Federal Aviation Administration will conduct an investigation into the cause of the crash. Officials from these agencies will arrive onsite Wednesday, March 26, Ouray County Public Information Officer Marti Whitmore said.
All data from the recovery effort, including over 10 eyewitness accounts collected by the Ouray County Sheriff’s Office, will be turned over to the federal officials at that time.
According to Mattivi, eyewitnesses described hearing the sound of the plane’s engine cutting in and out before they could actually see it. “It kind of went dead; then they looked up and could see [the plane] spiraling out of the clouds and landing in the reservoir,” he said. The weather on Saturday was windy, with a rain-and-snow mix and a low cloud ceiling, he said.
Recovery operations have been discontinued until Wednesday. Ridgway State Park remains closed with site security at this time, said park ranger Kristen Copeland.