SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Talk of the Town
By Dave Kiffer


February 06, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - The jet crash near A&P recently remains the big topic of discussion in Ketchikan.

Everywhere I look I see groups of people huddled together talking about the crash, describing what they saw, what they heard or passing on the latest "info" that they have.

It started minutes after the crash as the word of it spread across town even as the first sirens were ringing from the hillside. I stepped out a college class a couple of minutes after 1 pm last Wednesday and students in the hall were already passing the words "military jet crash" and "A&P."

The crash had occurred just before 1 pm. In the age of text messaging and cell phones, we have finally reached the point where the minute something happens we indeed - to quote a 1950s television program - "are there."

Surprisingly enough, most of the early details were accurate. About the only one that was off was the description of the jet being "Canadian" military. There was much initial speculation what the "Canadian" military jet was doing here. No one guessed that it was actually a private jet being "repossessed" at the time.

The story of that day - which will no doubt continue to be told for some time - is still evolving, changing in the telling from person to person, like a grown up - more serious - version of the childhood "telephone" game. We will continue to speculate about it.

It was the suddenness, the barely comprehensible nature of the crash that has shocked us out of our general complacency and set the tongues to wagging..

You don't expect planes to come hurtling out of the sky into town, even in Ketchikan which has had way more than its share of plane crashes.

In my lifetime, planes have flown into Deer Mountain, they have slid off the end of the airport runway. They have crashed into Tongass Narrows. Some have just plain disappeared.

But one has never crashed into the populated part of town to my memory. And this is the first time that a military type jet has crashed anywhere near here as far as I remember.

So we are left to ponder the fates (just what are the odds of a plane crashing on someone while they are in the produce aisle? Probably somewhat actuarily greater than being hit with lightning, while riding a bicycle, on a glacier) and the fact that the community dodged an unlikely bullet.

And we share that common response to tragedy, information. The "who, what and how" that we "know." The "why" naturally remaining a bit vague because of what we don't "know" and can only speculate

Perhaps what has touched us the most about the whole situation is the re-realization of how things can change in an instant. Of how you can be going about doing your daily business - shopping at A&P for example - and the world can suddenly cave in.

In this case - except for the family of the pilot - it didn't. But it very easily could have. We don't know what was happening in the cockpit of that jet in the final seconds of the flght. It will be months - if ever - before we find out why the pilot faced that terrible decision.

All we know is that appears that the pilot tried to minimize damage on the ground and that Ketchikan was very lucky. Had the jet smashed into the crowded supermarket or one of the other buildings in the area the death toll would have been much higher.

In Ketchikan, we are used to accidents. We all know people who have drowned, died in plane crashes, or been killed in fires or auto accidents. It is an unfortunate facet in our community that things happen suddenly and lives are changed utterly.

It is a fact of life that we have a world class trauma unit at our local hospital because every few months need it. We even hold to a certain level of gallows humor about it all, as if surviving all the potential accidents somehow makes us stronger, even though the vast majority of modern Ketchikan residents will never face a true life and death situation.

The crash is also a reminder just how quickly things can go wrong. A pilot landing in Ketchikan finds himself in nearly white out conditions. Did that cause the crash? All we know is that had he been landing an hour earlier or an hour or so later (or even the next day for that matter) weather wouldn't have been a factor.

I've spent enough time in the air to know that - even though flying remains statistically safer than driving - a lot can still go wrong and it can go wrong in a big hurry. In this case it seems that a pilot had only seconds to decide a course that would change his life and that of countless others.

I recently read a book in which the author was pondering the 30 seconds that it took for her friend's plane to go into a slow spiral - in the dark - and crash into the ocean. She wrote that she still sometimes sits and ponders how short a time 30 seconds is. She finds herself sometimes looking at the clock on the wall and watching 30 seconds tick away.

I suspect that the pilot of the jet - Major Stephen Freeman - had something less than three seconds to make his decision.

One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. Three-one thousand.

Not much time at all.

And although it came at great personal cost for his family, he made the right one for a community of people had never even met.

That's something certainly worth talking about.



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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