A chartered plane that crashed into a shallow harbor after taking off from Kodiak Island, killing six people, was carrying a group of fishermen from a dissident sect of the Russian Orthodox Church home for Christmas.
Four people survived the crash Saturday, and one of them told investigators Sunday that the door to a baggage compartment in the nose of the small plane had popped open.
"We want to look at the aerodynamic qualities of opening a very large door in flight," said Clint Johnson, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board. "This does not signal an end of our investigation of the crash by any means, but it at least played a part in it."
The Piper PA-31 Navajo Chieftain crashed about 50 yards off the end of a runway after taking off Saturday afternoon, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the NTSB.
The passengers were members of Alaska's community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers who had been fishing in Kodiak and were taking a short flight north to Homer to celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas at home on Monday.
Dean Andrew, the pilot of a float plane that had been taxiing nearby, said he pulled the four survivors aboard.
"Once I got them in they were really cold, and they were just pretty hysterical because they had told me that their family's in that plane," Andrew, who operates a small air service, told the Anchorage Daily News.
The flight was operated by Kodiak-based Servant Air.
Andrew said he heard what was happening from his plane's radio.
"I heard Servant Air's Navajo taking off, and shortly after he took off, he said 'I need to return to the airport,'" Andrew said. "I know the pilot, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that it was probably something serious."
Johnson said the survivor, whose name was not immediately released, told investigators that just as the Piper got airborne, the baggage area door opened at the nose of the plane on the pilot's side. That prompted the pilot, 50-year-old Robin Starrett of Kodiak, to try to return to the airport.
Also killed were five passengers from Homer: Stefan F. Basargin, 36; Pavel F. Basargin, 30; Zahary F. Martushev, 25; Iosif F. Martushev, 15; and Andrian Reutov, 22, officials said.
It was not immediately clear how the passengers were related.
Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox church in the 17th century in protest of changes made in the church at that time. Their members are scattered throughout Russia, Asia and the Western Hemisphere, shunning much of the modern way of life. About 1,500 are believed to live in Alaska.
"Everybody knows everybody. It's a tragedy," said Greg Yakunin, an Old Believer and fisherman who knew all of the passengers, from the town of Nikolaevsk.
"They were all friends of mine," he said. "I could have been on that plane, too."
The survivors' names were not immediately released. Two were flown to Anchorage for treatment. One was released Saturday night, and another remained there in good condition, said John Callahan, a spokesman for Providence Health and Services Alaska. One of the two who stayed in Kodiak was treated Saturday and released, and the other was in good condition, Callahan said.
Servant Air serves half a dozen communities on the large island in south-central Alaska, 225 miles southwest of Anchorage. Kodiak and Homer each have populations of roughly 6,000.