Fairbanks-area neighborhood shaken by fatal cargo plane crash

a plane crash site
A hillside riverbank about seven miles south of the Fairbanks International Airport smolders after a fuel plane crashed Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Courtesy Mike Emers)

The crash of a large cargo plane southeast of Fairbanks Tuesday shook the neighborhood with several explosions. Witnesses reported their windows rattling and the ground trembling.

Both people on board the plane died in the crash, according to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration. Authorities have not yet identified the two people killed, and say the cause of the crash is also still under investigation.

Officials say the Douglas C-54 — a version of the DC-4 airliner — crashed along the Tanana River, shortly after taking off from Fairbanks International Airport around 10 a.m. Tuesday. Troopers said Wednesday that thin ice and open water hindered recovery efforts.

The plane was listed as being operated by Alaska Air Fuel. The company could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

RELATED: Troopers say no survivors found after plane crashes near Fairbanks with 2 aboard

Mike Emers was among those who witnessed the crash Tuesday. He said he was at his home office at Rosie Creek Farm when he heard the first boom.

“I was just getting some orders together. So, I sat here, and I heard an explosion, and I followed it across the sky,” he said.

Emers said he called first responders.

“Yeah, and then I — fumbling around trying to find my phone — called 911, and couldn’t get through,” he said. “And I did get through to the troopers’ dispatch.”

a man walks near trucks
Mike Emers, owner of the Rosie Creek Farm across the Tanana from Fairbanks, said he saw the plane go down Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Robyne/KUAC)

His son ran down from the house and the two of them ran on their trail several hundred yards through the trees to the crash site above the river.

“We were running, yeah, and ran out to the river there to see, and then there was big black smoke and I was really worried,” he said.

Emers said troopers and firefighters were there in about 15 minutes. The dirt road in the neighborhood became choked with a muster of vehicles from the troopers, police and local fire departments.

They were able to get to the hillside on ATVs and got the fire under control, and it didn’t spread into the forest.

Emers said he checked his security video when he returned to his farm. He scrolled through, looking for the right timestamp. One camera that looks across the farm, caught the plane, flying toward the airport.

a computer screen
Mike Emers points to smoke starting to fill the screen on surveillance video of his farm, after a plane crashed there on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Robyne/KUAC)

“It comes from here,” Emers said, pointing at a computer screen.

A moment later, the plane appears on the screen at 10 a.m.

“Oh, there it is. There it is. There, it burst into flames,” he said.

It was 10 seconds from the time of the explosion of one of the plane’s engines to when it crashed, off the screen. In the video, a huge shadow blocked the sun shining on the greenhouses, as the smoke billowed up.

Emers choked up. He didn’t know who was on the plane, but everyone in Alaska knows someone who flies.

an airplane
N3054V parked in Fairbanks in August, 2023. (File/KUAC)

On the trail walking back to the crash site hours later, there was a faint smell of fuel. And farther down the slope, a heavy smell of smoke.

And then a tight acre, maybe acre and a half, of charred ground and spruce trunks on the steep hillside above the river. The hillside was scattered with debris and plane parts.

“It’s still burning a little bit here. There’s a hot spot here. It’s smoking,” Emers called to fire crews at the scene.

Emers is not on his own land. The plane crashed on uninhabited property owned by the Binkley family. But it’s all the same to him.

fire hose in the woods
Fire hoses at the scene of a plane crash near Fairbanks on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Authorities say a plane crashed and ignited a fire. (Robyne/KUAC)

Fire technicians Billy Morrow and Josh Chiles were among a crew from the state Division of Forestry and Fire Protection laying out long hoses on the charred ground Tuesday afternoon.

“There’s a lot of snow pack and everything behind it, but we’re gonna butt it up with some sprinkler kits connecting from that flank down on it, connecting to the river, all the way up here and then down to this side,” Chiles said.

They didn’t know how long the operation would take – the rest of the day, or overnight. They were placing the hoses around debris up and down the slope.

One of the plane’s engines was in the broken land-fast ice on the shore of the river. It was still on fire. Another big piece was out on the firmer river ice. A third big piece had already melted through and disappeared under the ice.

A drone flew along the river. Just off the burned zone, in the green trees, was the Emers’ family canoe.

 “Well, we felt like this was our secret little place and now, you know…” Emers trailed off.

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