Whidbey Island plane crash: What we know so far

The U.S. Coast Guard suspended their search for nine people that went down with a floatplane west of Whidbey Island on Sunday afternoon.

One woman’s body, the tenth victim, was recovered on Sunday. She was identified as Gabrielle Hanna, a 29-year-old Seattle-area lawyer. 

"Our hearts hang very low," said Scott Giard, a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. "This is a huge tragedy, not only for the families and friends of the unaccounted people, but for the searchers."

The Coast Guard is expected to release the names of all 10 victims early Tuesday morning. Family and friends were notified around 11 a.m. on Monday that the search was being called off.

One of the victims has been identified as Sandy Williams, an activist that founded Black Lens News and helped build the Carl Maxey Center.

A post from the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force noted Williams’ voice for marginalized people, writing: "Our hearts go out to Sandy’s family. While she may be gone, her legacy is assured."

It’s unclear what led up to the plane crash.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard revealed that the owner of Northwest Seaplanes, the group that operated the charter flight that crashed, had noticed a slight shift in the plane's direction compared to the flight plan. They attempted to contact the pilot, but couldn’t connect.

They called emergency responders, and that’s when Good Samaritans began calling 9-1-1 near Mutiny Bay off the coast of Whidbey Island to report that the plane had crashed nose first, at a high-rate of speed.

"It was just a big splash out there," said Rick Rasmussen, a bystander who missed the sight of a plane but saw a splash roughly 20-30 feet high from the beach.

"It sounded like dynamite went off."

Data from Flight Aware indicated that the plane was traveling at a high-rate of speed when it crashed into the water. According to the Whidbey Island Fire Department, people miles away from the site reported hearing the loud bang.

While the U.S. Coast Guard search is suspended, NTSB is now launching a secondary investigation into what caused the crash. A rapid-response team will lead that investigation in the coming days. So far, they have not reported any initial findings.

"I’m anticipating they’re going to have some challenges with this one," said Mike Slack, an aviation lawyer with Slack Davis Sanger that has worked on similar investigations and lawsuits.

Slack noted that the plane, a 55-year-old de Havilland DHC-3 Otter, is a reliable aircraft. However, it doesn’t have a lot of high-tech gadgetry that could go wrong, and he doubts it would have any type of "black box" equipment that you see on larger commercial planes.

Unless there is some type of clue that hasn’t been reported, Slack said this could pose a lot of issues for investigators. He said they’ll have a checklist to look at including everything from whether there is any indication that the pilot was incapacitated, or dealing with any issues at the time the plane went down.

"It looks like the engine was performing all the way to the water facilitating the descent," said Slack. "So, it does not appear to be an engine issue. As they go, they’ve got some real challenges to find that piece that puts this all together."

Investigators believe they are dealing with water depths of 150-200 feet where the debris field likely dispersed.

It’s unclear if a larger piece of the plane could be intact at a depth that isn’t reachable by immediate efforts used by the U.S. Coast Guard, Whidbey Island Fire and the other responding agencies.

As for the operator of the plane, a statement was released Tuesday reading – in part: "We have been in communication with the families.  We are praying for the families involved, including our pilot and his family."