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STOCKTON -- A converted military plane crashed in heavy fog in the Oquirrh mountains Saturday morning, killing three crew members of a private Montana-based firefighting company, the Tooele County sheriff said.
The twin-engine P2V Neptune plane was en route from Missoula, Mont. to Alamogordo, N.M. to help fight a 19,000-acre wildfire when it failed to clear a mountain pass, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico Forestry Division.
The three men who died in the crash are:
- Tom Risk, 66, from Littleton, Colo., pilot
- Mike Flynn, 59, from Alamogordo, N.M., crew member
- Brian Buss, 32, from Alberton, Mont., crew member
They were crew members for Neptune Aviation of Missoula. Neptune's ground safety and security coordinator, Miek Pfau, said he could confirm only that the company lost an aircraft.
Search and Rescue effort
Stockton resident Cindy Madsen heard the crash around 10 a.m. She said, "All of a sudden I just heard this big ‘bang' and I was wondering what that was. I thought somebody had crashed into my house because it just rumbled the whole house and everything. It was pretty scary."Another resident, Madalyn Thomas said, "Our house shook. Our front door was shaking. It sounded like a bomb went off." A man hiking in the area was the first to call 911. He says he saw the plane go down and heard a sound like two semis crashing. Tooele County Search and Rescue began combing the area on off-road vehicles as a call from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho came in.
"There was a flight headed from Missoula, Montana to Alamogordo, New Mexico that had gone off the screen quite close to the area the gentleman had heard the plane," said Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park.
Rescuers were hampered by thick fog and rain for three hours. Park said, "You could barely see across the highway."
The sheriff's office says crews located the crash site around 1 p.m. approximately one mile east of the Stockton Pass in the Oquirrh Mountains. The debris field is more than 100 yards long. Once there, searchers confirmed that the plane was the P2V Neptune reported missing.
Park said visibility was only 100 feet when the plane failed to clear Stockton Pass. It missed the pass by an eighth of a mile and slammed into a mountain instead, but should have been flying much higher, he said.
The Interagency Fire Center lost radio contact with the plane before the pilot could report any trouble or issue a distress signal, the sheriff said.
Crews recovered the bodies and turned them over to the state medical examiner. Investigators for the Federal Aviation Administration were at the crash site Saturday, and officials for the National Transportation Safety Board planned to arrive Sunday. They'll try to determine why the plane crashed.
New Mexico fire
New Mexico state forester Arthur Blazer said of the men who died in the crash, "While we must pause to mourn their loss, within the wildland community we must also honor them by continuing to fight fires to protect our communities."
The wildfire, 20 percent contained, was threatening a home and several outbuildings and a power distribution line, officials said.
"The fire aviation community lost good people and a valuable resource today and they will be missed," said Jennifer Myslivy, a New Mexico-based fire mitigation and education specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Story compiled with information from Sarah Dallof and the Associated Press.
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