Aniak honors 5 teenagers who rescued survivors from plane crash

A man holds a certificate. On his left is a woman wearing a mask and dfolder, andd on his right, another man with a hoodie and hands in his pockets.
A.J. Simeon receives recognition for his part in rescuing firefighters from a plane crash in Aniak. (Courtesy of Dave Cannon)

The city of Aniak honored the five teenagers who helped pull survivors from an Alaska Division of Forestry plane that crashed in a lake this spring. The plane carried a pilot and three seasonal firefighters on their way to Soldotna to provide backup support for wildland firefighters. The teenagers responded to the scene first, and everyone survived.

Dave Mattson was serving on Aniak City Council at the time of the crash, and has wanted to publicly recognize the teens ever since. 

“We wanted to hold this event as a large community get-together, potluck style,” Mattson said.

But the pandemic has prevented any such gathering, so Mattson did the next best thing. He got together a small group, outdoors, all physically distanced, and made a Facebook video. Standing in sunshine before green trees with airplanes flying overhead, Mattson described the day of the crash on May 28. 

“On this Saturday morning, the sun came out to start warming up the day,” Mattson began.

He described Aniak resident and firefighter Kelly Kehlenbach packing his bag and boarding the plane, joining two firefighters from Hooper Bay.

“As the plane roared its engine to life and taxied down the runway,” Mattson said, “they took off with no idea that they would soon have five new heroes rescuing them.”

Those heroes are Dylan Nicholson, age 13, Trevor Morgan, age 17, Mason Dallmann, age 17, Skye Morgan, age 18, and A.J. Simeon, age 19. They spotted the yellow plane sinking in a lake, with Kehlenbach attempting to climb out.

“Not more than a month ago, that water had been frozen solid and was still at really cold temps,” Mattson described. “Yet it did not stop these five from jumping in the cold water at places 5 or more feet deep to help four DOF crew from the wreckage.”

Mattson said that fuel glossed the water and could have ignited at any moment, but the teens plunged ahead as they also called for emergency help.

“Heroism: someone who shows great courage and valor. If you ask me, I do not know of a better word for what these five did that day,” Mattson said.

Mattson owns an automotive business in Aniak, and his shop ordered plaques for each of the teens, commemorating their actions. A sixth plaque with all the teens’ names will hang in city hall.

“This plaque, along with their personal plaques, are not to remind us of the crash, but to remind us there is good in all people,” Mattson said.

In the video, Aniak Mayor Erica Kameroff also praised and thanked the teenagers.

“The City of Aniak is very proud and honored to have such courageous young people a part of our community,” Kameroff said, “reminding us all that in times of need, we as a community know how to come together and do what needs to be done.”

Firefighter and crash survivor Kelly Kehlenbach handed the plaques to each of the teenagers, who wore masks as they accepted them. 

The City of Aniak also awarded each of the teens a $100 Visa gift card.

Ending the video, Mattson wished everyone well. “God bless, be safe, and have a good night, guys.”

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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