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Mysteries surround plane crash that killed three near Mt. Si

Responding to an early morning plane crash that killed three people, searchers set up a staging area at the foot of Mount Si, just across the Mount Si Road bridge, on Feb. 15. - Courtesy of Snoqualmie Valley Record
Responding to an early morning plane crash that killed three people, searchers set up a staging area at the foot of Mount Si, just across the Mount Si Road bridge, on Feb. 15.
— image credit: Courtesy of Snoqualmie Valley Record

Questions continue to surround the plane crash in North Bend that killed three people, including two South King County swim coaches.

A Cessna 172 with one pilot and two passengers was destroyed when it crashed into Little Si on Feb. 15, killing all three aboard. Little Si is a hill adjacent to Mount Si.

The victims are Federal Way residents Robert Hill, 30, and Elizabeth Redling, 29, along with Seth Dawson, 31, a swim coach at Kentlake High School in Kent. Hill was a swim coach at Decatur High School. The men also coached the Valley Aquatics Swim Team in Federal Way. Redling was a friend.

What they were doing in the plane, where they came from, where they was headed, and why they were flying so near Little Si are all still unclear, according to National Transportation Safety Board Regional Chief Jeff Rich. No flight plan was filed, but that's not unusual in night flights with reasonably clear weather.

"What we know is it collided with mountainous terrain," he said, and the investigation, conducted by NTSB investigator Wayne Pollack, will attempt to answer the other questions.

The owner of Renton flying school AcuWings told the Seattle Times that Hill, a flight instructor at the school, had taken the plane on the late-night non-instructional flight without his knowledge.

The crash occurred after 1:30 a.m., estimated King County Sheriff spokeswoman Cindi West, whose department took a couple of reports of a loud noise in the area at 1:55 a.m.

One caller's account suggested the plane's engine stopped.

"There was what he described as a pop, then silence, then the crash," West said. No one reported any smoke or fire to indicate an explosion.

Two patrolmen who heard the impact were already en route to investigate the incident, West said, and when their radios picked up the sound of an emergency beacon, "that's when search and rescue got called." Guardian One, the county's rescue helicopter, was also in the air within the hour.

Several specialized teams of search-and-rescue volunteers, including four-by-four and technical climbing teams, were on-site and able to begin their searches by daylight.

"We had at one point, about 43 people on the mountain that day," West said.

Rescuers had to hike up about a mile and a half to where the helicopter had spotted some of the wreckage. Sheriff's Office personnel also closed the hiking trails on Little Si and Mount Si, and controlled traffic on Mount Si Road during the day. Both trails remain closed until further notice, but the road re-opened Wednesday afternoon, once the victims' bodies were recovered.

Deputies will also do traffic control and offer other assistance while NTSB investigators while are working at the crash site.

Pollack, who arrived in Washington from his Los Angeles office Thursday, said he'd need only one to two days at the crash site, starting Feb. 17.

"We'll spend the day on the mountainside looking at the evidence of the impact signatures," he said, continuing with a lengthy list of details that would be examined, such as broken tree branches, ground scarring, and the location and position of pieces of the plane.

For example, he said lowered wing flaps could indicate the plane was attempting an emergency landing, suggesting that there had been a malfunction, or possibly a tree collision.

The clues are put together, and working backward, the investigator tries to determine the plane's flight path.

"That will provide a key piece of information for us, because the aircraft's flight path is a key indication of what was happening in the cockpit," he explained.  Other clues will be provided by reviewing the plane's maintenance logs, interviews with the pilot's flight school, examining the weather conditions at the time of the crash, an autopsy and toxicology report on the pilot, and, Pollack hoped, "the radar track from the FAA, if there is coverage in this area."

The radar track can provide  "evidence of when and where the airplane took off, where it was headed… It's our best witness as to how the airplane got to the airplane crash site," Pollack said.

Should Pollack determine that he needs more time to review the wreckage, NTSB will take possession of the wreckage and move it to an indoor facility for further study. That happens rarely, Pollack said. Typically, the aircraft owner is responsible for removing the debris and storing it, sometimes for years, until all insurance company investigations and potential lawsuits are settled.

A typical NTSB investigation, which is required by U.S. law for all civil airplane crashes in the U.S. and some internationally, can take six to nine months before it is complete.

Memorial services

• A memorial service for Elizabeth Redling was held Feb. 21 at St. Philomena Church in Des Moines. Liz was actively involved in the rescuing of animals. Donations can be made to the Humane Society of Seattle/King County.

• A celebration of life is planned for Rob Hill at noon Feb. 25 t St. Luke's Lutheran Church, 515 S. 312th St., Federal Way, with a reception following. In honor of Rob and his passion for swimming since age 6 as a Twin Lakes Penguin, "Speedy Sixer,” donations can be made to the Swimming Pool Fund, Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, 3583 SW 320th St., Federal Way, WA 98023.

• A memorial service for Seth Dawson will take place at 1 p.m. Feb. 26 at Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash. Donations can be made in Seth's memory to King County Search and Rescue Association at kcsara.org.

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