‘Safe by the Grace of God’: Eye Surgical Team That Departed From Chehalis Escapes Fiery Jet Crash


Ten passengers and crew survived a plane crash and rapidly spreading fire Tuesday on the main runway at the Tri-Cities Airport.

The small privately-owned jet was carrying surgical technicians and a registered nurse for the Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute when the landing gear failed just after 7 a.m. They were flying in from Chehalis.

The Citation line Cessna passenger jet skidded on its belly down the airport’s primary runway, sparking a fire, said Ben Shearer, public information officer for the Pasco Fire Department.

“This is this first time in the 30 years that (the fire station has) been out here that we’ve had this type of incident,” he said.

Firefighters had no warning the plane was having problems, so they weren’t able to position units around the airport like they normally do when they’re alerted to landing gear troubles, Shearer said.

The multi-million-dollar plane came to an abrupt stop on the runway and the pilot and surgical team were able to escape ahead of the swiftly moving fire that erupted.

Firefighters were able to contain the blaze, but once a plane catches fire it burns fast, Shearer said.

Crash investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board were called in to investigate what happened.

Surgical team

The jet is one of three operated by the Pacific Cataract Laser Institute, said Kris Gamboa, the site manager for the Kennewick location.

It was carrying staff from the company’s headquarters in Chehalis to the Tri-Cities.

“No bruises. No bumps. Just a lot of nerves,” Gamboa said. “I think everybody was safe by the grace of God. It was a good day. We’re thankful that everybody was safe.”

They had planned to drop off staff to work at the company’s Kennewick location before picking up a doctor and flying to Lewiston.

The company has 17 sites across the Northwest, and share staff among them. They perform surgeries for cataracts, glaucoma, corneal transplants and laser vision corrections.

The company canceled 30 planned surgeries in Kennewick and 24 in Lewiston on Tuesday and brought the staff back to Chehalis by van.

Airport firefighting

The fire department has two firefighters on duty 24-hours a day at a fire station next to the airport so they are able to arrive quickly, Shearer said.

The last time the Tri-Cities Airport saw this level of a crash was 33 years ago when a commercial plane crashed just short of the airport killing everyone onboard.

Pasco firefighters go through regular practice preparing for these kinds of emergencies, Shearer said. That includes practicing with different types of planes.

Tuesday’s crash came a day before a Federal Aviation Administration-mandated drill to practice responding to a plane crash.

The Pasco airport terminal remained open Tuesday morning and the airfield was back open by 10 a.m.

Two commercial flights had minor delays because of the incident.

Three Died in 2010 PCLI Plane Crash Near Morton

By The Chronicle staff

Tuesday wasn’t the first time a Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute (PCLI) plane with passengers crashed, though the previous crash had a much more tragic end.

At 7:40 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 25, 2010, a twin-engine Cessna carrying three men — Chehalis pilot Ken Sabin, 70; PCLI employee Rod Rinta, 43, a laser technician from Chehalis; and Dr. Paul Shenk, 59, an eye surgeon from Woodland — crashed about 9 miles northeast of Morton while en route to Lewiston, Idaho.

There were no survivors.

Snow and inclement weather had blanketed the crash site in a heavily wooded area at about 2,900 feet elevation, according to previous Chronicle reporting.

The plane was found four days after the crash and it took an additional six days for the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office to fully recover the remains.

An investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed the plane climbed from 14,600 to 14,900 feet before 7:30 a.m. before it began descending.

Sabin had requested to bring the plane up to 17,000 feet, according to previous Chronicle reporting.

At 14,700 feet, Sabin indicated that he was heading back to Chehalis. After commencing a clockwise turn, he indicated he had lost power to one of the plane’s two engines.

The last altitude the plane recorded was at 10,700 feet, according to previous Chronicle reporting. Fifteen seconds later, at 7:40 a.m., Sabin said “We’re losing it.”

That was the last transmission.

The plane recovered, reascending to 12,000 feet and resuming a flight path to Chehalis, according to the Seattle Times.

But air traffic control lost radar contact with the plane at 7:44 a.m., according to the Seattle Times.

The plane dropped off radar while descending in a clockwise turn.

Approximately that same time, a logging crew and a forester in the area — at two different locations — reportedly heard an aircraft banking hard, according to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.

The impact of the crash created a 5-foot-deep crater, according to the NTSB. Several hundred components of the plane were found scattered across a 20- to 30-degree downsloping ravine.

No evidence of a fire was found.

Pertinent portions of the engines, turbochargers, propeller assemblies and airplane systems were secured for follow-up examination, according to previous Chronicle reporting.

Inspections of both engines later revealed significant impact damage, but no “pre-impact abnormalities that would have prevented normal operation and production of rated horsepower,” according to NTSB reports released in 2011.

NTSB’s investigation material on the crash is available online at https://data.ntsb.gov/Docket?ProjectID=77668.