CHUGIAK, Alaska -- Five people, including three children, died Friday when a small plane crashed and burned on railroad tracks near the Birchwood Airport in Chugiak, officials said.
Anchorage police said the five victims all came from the same family: pilot Lonn Greiner, 46, from Eagle River; his three children, Glory, 13, Nathan, 11, and Grace, 10; and his 69-year-old mother, Carolyn Greiner.
Police said they were headed to Seldovia, where they planned to overnight for the start of the Memorial Day weekend.
The plane was a Cessna 180 loaded with aviation gas that exploded when the plane struck the ground.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Chris Shaver said in an interview that the investigation had not yet uncovered a cause for the crash.
"Right now we can't speculate on anything with regards to circumstances," Shaver said. "We'll be looking at all aspects -- man, machine and environment."
The crash did not appear to be survivable. The plane's fuselage and cockpit were badly burned.
Shaver said the plane is listed as a four-seater, but the fact that it held five doesn't necessarily mean it was overloaded. It could have had a bench seat in the back, he said.
Witnesses said the plane exploded on impact, said Chugiak Assistant Fire Chief Virginia McMichel. It apparently had just taken off, she said.
One of the witnesses, Joe Rinehart of Spenard Builders Supply, which operates a facility near the crash scene, said he was alerted by the fire.
"I didn't hear the crash, but I saw the flames shoot up," Rinehart said. He smelled fuel and ran over to look.
"All it was was wingtips, a tail and a smashed engine. There was nothing left -- there was no way to survive that."
At first, a gate blocked access to the Alaska Railroad property where the crash occurred, but Rinehart directed emergency crews through the Spenard Builders Supply yard nearby so they could reach the wreckage.
The wreckage was oriented in a way that suggested the pilot was attempting to return to the airport, but that could not be confirmed.
The plane appeared to have been attempting a landing adjacent to the rail line. But the differing heights of the roadbed there, in a small railyard with six sets of tracks for the Alaska Railroad's north-south mainline and sidings, might have snagged the wings.
The plane was reported down about 10:15 a.m.
The Alaska Railroad was asked to shut down rail traffic. By around noon, the line reopened with a freight train of hopper cars passing the crash scene.
The area is about 20 miles north of Anchorage.
(c) 2011, Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska).
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