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Lake Erie search called off after air crash

U.S. and Canadian crews called off rescue efforts Sunday for 10 people believed killed when a small regional airline plane crashed into icy Lake Erie shortly after taking off from a Canadian island.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hampered by snow and low clouds, U.S. and Canadian crews called off rescue efforts Sunday for 10 people believed killed when a small regional airline plane crashed into icy Lake Erie shortly after taking off from a Canadian island.

The single-engine plane crashed in snowy weather late Saturday afternoon, and by Sunday was submerged in 24 feet of water about a mile west of Pelee Island, the Ontario Provincial Police said.

“Unfortunately, this has changed from a rescue mission to a recovery mission,” said Constable Brian Knowler of the provincial police in Kingsville. A statement from the police said rescue operations ended at 1 p.m. EST.

The Georgian Express plane, carrying eight hunters from Ontario, the pilot and a friend of the pilot, was bound for Windsor, about 35 miles to the northwest, when the pilot made a frantic call for help soon after taking off.

The wreckage of the Cessna 208 Caravan was found Saturday evening in western Lake Erie, between Cleveland and Detroit, but bad weather kept rescuers from finding the victims.

The region has been locked in bitterly cold weather, with temperatures in the 20s Saturday and early Sunday in northern Ohio. Wind and snow flurries were forecast Sunday, with waves of 2 to 4 feet, and the water temperature was about 34 degrees.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Neah Bay stayed at the scene of the crash during the night, but snow and low clouds forced helicopters to leave.

“The weather became a very big factor in our efforts,” said Capt. Dave Elit of the Canadian search and rescue coordination center at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

Provincial police said divers and salvage equipment were expected to arrive at the scene Sunday evening. Knowler said it was unlikely much salvage work would be undertaken Sunday.

A team was being formed to investigate the crash, said Don Enns, regional senior investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

Provincial police spokeswoman Debbie Mineau said a resident of the island heard the plane’s engine laboring, then heard the crash.

Paul Mulrooney, president of Georgian Express, said the weather was not likely to have played a role in the crash, and that pilot Wayne Price was experienced with Cessna Caravans and had worked for his company for more than a year.

“The weather was poor down there, but from what we know, it is flyable type of weather,” Mulrooney said.

Authorities identified the victims as Price, 32, of Richmond Hill, Ontario; Fred Freitas, 38, of Kingsville; Jim Allen, 51, of Mitchell’s Bay; Ted Reeve, 53, of Chatham; Tom Reeve, 49, of Chatham; Robert Brisco, 46, of Chatham; Ronald Spencler, 53, of Windsor; Walter Sadowski, 48, of Windsor; Larry Janik, 48, of Kingsville; and Jamie Levine, 28, of Los Angeles.

The eight male passengers were part of a hunting group, and Levine was a friend of Price’s.

All the hunters knew each other, provincial police Staff Sgt. Doug Babbitt said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. He said it was not immediately clear how long they had been on their trip.

Pelee Island resident Shawnda Bedel said she saw the hunters at the airport Saturday. She said she was planning to take a flight off the island Saturday to join her husband, but changed her mind at the last minute.

“It was crummy weather,” Bedel, 29, said in a telephone interview. “It snowed most of the day.”

Pelee Island has a year-round population of about 180, but peaks to more than 1,000 in the summer as tourists flock in. The island and Ohio’s Lake Erie islands are popular summertime destinations for people from Ontario and Ohio.

Mulrooney said his company, based in Mississauga, Ontario, has up to three flights daily between the island and Windsor in the winter, when ice prevents ferries from running.