STAGECOACH, Nevada (AP) — A medical transport plane that crashed into a mountain in northern Nevada, killing all five people on board, including a patient, disintegrated before hitting the ground, authorities said Sunday.
The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a seven-member team of investigators to the scene of Friday night’s accident near Stagecoach.
“How do we know if the plane broke up in flight? We found parts of the plane one-and-a-half to three-quarters of a mile from the crash site,” NTSB Deputy Chairman Bruce Landsberg said at a news conference in Carson City.
Landsberg told an afternoon briefing that a team spent the day searching for pieces of the downed plane. He said investigators will remain on site for several days before the wreckage of the single-engine Pilot’s PC-12 is moved so investigators can try to determine the cause of the crash. This aircraft was built in 2002.
“Right now, we don’t know. It’s like a three-dimensional puzzle,” Landsberg said. “It’s hard when you don’t have all the pieces in the same place.”
The crash came amid a winter storm warning issued by the National Weather Service in Reno for large parts of Nevada, including parts of Leon County. Snow with winds of 20 mph (30 kph) and gusts of 30 mph (50 kph).
According to the weather service, when the plane took off from Reno to Salt Lake City and went down, it was about 2,000 feet (600 meters) above the ground with a cloud ceiling and visibility under two miles (3.2 kilometers).
Care Flight, which provides air and helicopter ambulance services, identified the downed plane and said the pilot, a flight nurse, a flight paramedic, a patient and a patient’s family member were all dead.
Stagecoach resident and former flight nurse Robin Hayes said she heard the plane fly over her house before crashing behind her property.
“I knew the plane was in trouble,” Hayes told the Reno Gazette Journal. “I knew it was going to crash. I just hoped it wasn’t going to crash into my house.
Hayes called 911 and went outside but couldn’t see the wreckage because of the blowing snow.
Misty Gruneme told the newspaper that the wind was howling and the snow was blowing hard when she heard a thud and banging behind her house in Stagecoach. The rural community has about 2,500 residents and is located about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southeast of Reno.
Grueneme said he wanted to help but the conditions were terrible and he didn’t have a vehicle that could safely navigate unpaved roads buried in 6 inches of snow.
“It was snowing and the visibility was terrible. I don’t even understand why the plane was allowed to take off,” Krueneme said.
The Leon County Sheriff’s Office said authorities began receiving calls about the crash near Stagecoach, Nevada at 9:15 p.m., and discovered the wreckage two hours later.
Care Flight officials said it was grounding all flights and working through each of its operations to determine when it would return to service.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the plane was registered to Guardian Airlines in South Jordan, Utah. Care Flight is a Remsa Health service in Reno and Guardian Flight.
According to the National Insurance Commissioners website, more than half a million medical patients in the United States use air ambulance services each year.
This story has been updated to adjust estimates for the number of medical patients who use air ambulance services each year.