As federal investigators try to determine why an air taxi crashed on takeoff in Alaska, killing nine Greenville residents, the community prepared to hold funeral services for one family and to remember the richness of the lives of those who died.
Services for five members of the Milton Antonakos Jr. family were scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Christ Church Episcopal.
Antonakos, his wife, Kimberly, and their three children were vacationing with another Christ Church family, Chris and Stacey McManus and their two children when a single-engine de Havilland DHC-3 Otter crashed July 7.
The pilot also was killed. Both families were memorialized at the church last week.
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A spokesman said Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board still is in the early stages of its investigation of the crash in Soldotna, Alaska.
“We have just begun our investigation,” Eric Weiss, the agency spokesman, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
The agency will issue preliminary findings and then a factual report before issuing a final report that will include a probable cause, Weiss said. The process is expected to take several months.
NTSB member Earl Weener said investigators were examining the plane’s flight controls for possible clues of an aerodynamic stall that might have caused the pilot to lose control.
“We’re looking at it, certainly with a great deal of interest,” he said at a briefing last week, “but we have not determined that was the case.”
In Greenville, those who knew the victims well, or even in passing, said their deaths would have a lasting impact. Community members said they are struggling to put the crash into the context of living and hoping to find peace for themselves and those who died.
“I’ve never felt a greater responsibility as a father and as a parent to handle the situation,” said Sam Erwin, president and chief executive officer of The Palmetto Bank, based in Greenville. “How do you deal with a loss that is so tragic that really has no answers?”
Erwin said his teen-age son, Sam Jr., was a friend of Olivia Antonakos, who was 16 and a rising junior at J.L. Mann High. The teens knew each other through church youth group activities, Erwin said.
Olivia was secretary on the high school student council and a member of the varsity basketball team.
Her father, Milton Antonakos, known as Melet, graduated from Clemson and was a software sales entrepreneur. He was 53.
Kimberly Antonakos also graduated from Clemson, had worked as a certified public accountant and was active in the PTA at Sara Collins Elementary. She was 44.
Also killed were a son, Milton III, who was 14 and a rising freshman at J.L. Mann, and another daughter, Anastacia, who was 11 and an all-star student at Sara Collins Elementary.
Weener said the plane was hired to fly the nine Greenville residents and supplies to a remote lodge approximately 90 miles to the southwest. The families planned a bear-sighting expedition.
The aircraft got airborne and then crashed with its right wing down at 11:20 a.m. local time, Weener said. The propeller, which had four blades, showed evidence of rotation at the time of impact, he said.
The crash site was 88 feet to the right of the runway at Soldotna’s airport, NTSB officials said. The runway is paved and 5,000 feet long, according to the town’s website.
Records were being gathered on the airplane’s manufacture, maintenance, ownership and details on the Greenville residents’ trip, Weener said.
Investigators were analyzing five cell phones recovered from the crash site, according to NTSB officials.
NTSB officials said the airplane carrying the families wasn’t required to have a so-called black box, or data-recording device.
Weener said investigators removed the engine and propeller from the main wreckage at the Soldotna Municipal Airport. The engine was to be boxed and shipped to Honeywell in Phoenix for analysis, Weener said.
Investigators also were conducting interviews to build a 72-hour history of the pilot’s activities before the crash and will try independently to determine the weight and balance of the airplane as it took off, Weener said.
Investigators don’t know if the plane’s cargo shifted significantly on takeoff, but “we are in the process of making certain that we do find out,” Weener said.
The passengers weren’t carrying a lot of baggage because they intended just to stay at the lodge one night, Weener said. The plane also was carrying supplies to the lodge, but no large items that would cause its weight to shift measurably, he said.
The lodge provisions already were on the plane and the pilot loaded the baggage, Weener said. The aircraft didn’t carry an unusual number of passengers and winds at takeoff were light and variable, he said.
“This should not have been an abnormal operation,” he said.
As investigators search for answers, Erwin said Greenville will continue to grieve and pray that the families can be at peace.
Those who died “are in a better place,” he said. “We will get through it by our faith.”