Losing a family member, whether parent, child, or sibling, or even a close friend, is unbearably hard enough. But the second tragedy of the Mutiny Bay Northwest Seaplanes accident, is the stunning fact that the bodies of nine loved ones remain under water, now eight days after the accident, even though the accident location is known and wreckage has been located.
It was reported on September 13 that “Given the depth and 3- to5- knot currents, the NTSB is seeking a work-class remotely operated vehicle to recover the wreckage.” It is not known why it took the NTSB more than a week to realize that sophisticated underwater recover technology is going to be needed.
This is unacceptable. It cannot be allowed to happen in this era of advanced technology and in the most advanced country in the world. Surviving family members have a right to demand more, especially from the federal government and military.
There were many witnesses to the Mutiny Bay accident. Civilian rescuers responded immediately to the site, and there were no survivors. This was a known fact less than an hour after the accident. But instead of immediately commencing recovery efforts, the search for survivors continued – for another full day or two despite the complete lack of evidence that this was in any way a survivable accident. Recovery was delayed while the Coast Guard’s two cutters, response boat, helicopter and a C-27J military transport aircraft from Sacramento searched a mere 2100 square miles of Puget Sound for survivors. Why didn’t they just trust the witnesses including the civilian and police responders didn’t see any survivors? Why weren’t similar resources rolled into recovery right away?
As many people were at the site of the accident shortly after it occurred, smelling jet fuel and finding small pieces of the aircraft, its cargo, and one body, the GPS coordinates of the point of impact must have been known on the day of the accident. Though the sinking wreckage may have travelled a short distance with currents, that drift can be roughly calculated, especially since the water is reported to be 160 to 200 feet deep. The main wreckage must be relatively close to the point of impact, and not significantly far from shore. This was not an aircraft that disappeared on the high seas with no witnesses. But the wreckage still has not been found or recovered.
Shortly after the accident all available resources in the region should have been coordinated and relevant resources used for an immediate recovery, especially federal resources including top recovery technology and equipment from the Navy and Coast Guard. Consideration and coordination should have included all available federal facilities such as: Naval Station Everett, US Military Sealift Everett, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Bangor Trident Base, and the various Coast Guard Facilities.
If this accident involved U.S. Navy sailors or pilots, would the response have been the same? What if it was an accident involving a military aircraft, submarine, lost scuba divers, or even an errant torpedo? With high priority all would have been quickly recovered. The technology and capability is there.
For example, In August, 2022 the Navy located and recovered a F/A-18 fighter jet that had fallen off an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea and sunk to 9500 feet below the surface. The equipment available includes undersea recovery vehicles, such as CURV-21, and remotely controlled unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). Why can’t this technology be used to recover the bodies and wreckage in Mutiny Bay? We pay taxes to fund every one of these military branches, and their emergency response and recovery assets should be available to assist in civilian catastrophes.
Another question begs an answer: Who was in charge of recovery, and what resources are available? After the loss of 10 lives, what have any of Washington’s congressional delegation (two senators and ten representatives) done to help these families find their loved ones with federal assistance? A coordinated federal response should have immediately included the Navy and Coast Guard, using their state-of-the-art sophisticated equipment.
After the mist settles on Puget Sound, and some of the wreckage and hopefully bodies are recovered, a congressional investigation should take place, not just to find fault in the recovery response, but to fix it by establishing a policy to assist in emergency response and recovery in civilian catastrophes, and then establish a plan to implement procedures regarding recovery coordination and equipment use. This would help prevent many families in the future from having to suffer – the second tragedy.
*Robert Hedrick is an aviation attorney with Aviation Law Group PS in Seattle, where he exclusively works on aircraft accident cases. Robert is a commercial pilot, ex-flight instructor, seaplane pilot, and he holds an FAA airframe and powerplant mechanic certificate. He also teaches Aviation Accident Law at Seattle University School of Law. He handles airplane and helicopter accidents throughout the U.S west coast, British Columbia, Alaska, Hawaii, and Internationally.