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Friday Harbor, where seaplanes are a familiar presence, reels after crash

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A U.S. Coast Guard boat searches the area Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, as kayakers pull out, near Freeland, Wash., on Whidbey Island north of Seattle where a chartered floatplane crashed the day before. The plane was carrying 10 people and was en route from Friday Harbor, Wash., to Renton, Wash.
A U.S. Coast Guard boat searches the area Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, as kayakers pull out, near Freeland, Wash., on Whidbey Island north of Seattle where a chartered floatplane crashed the day before. The plane was carrying 10 people and was en route from Friday Harbor, Wash., to Renton, Wash. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) Photo Gallery

FRIDAY HARBOR — It was shaping up to be a lovely Sunday afternoon in Friday Harbor after a morning of light, on-and-off drizzles. The sun had started to emerge, and the small island town was filled with visitors, many drawn to the island hoping to catch a glimpse of an orca pod over the Labor Day weekend.

“It was a beautiful day,” remembered Amy Taylor, Friday Harbor’s town clerk, who stopped by the docks Tuesday afternoon to pick up fresh crab from a local seafood shop. “What happened later, it was shocking.”

The town attracted a boom of tourists over the holiday weekend, as it does every summer, with the promise of boating, kayaking, whale-watching and exploring lush San Juan Island. But by Tuesday morning, most crowds were gone and the port had quieted. What remains is a deep ache among community members who are still trying to understand the Sunday afternoon floatplane crash that killed 10 people after the plane operated by Friday Harbor Seaplanes took off from their island home.

“It’s unsettling,” said Jennifer Yerkes, a 30-year resident who manages Friday Harbor Seafood, a small shop that sits by the water. “People are kind of hunkering down and processing it.”

In Friday Harbor, seaplanes are a significant part of the town’s culture and a frequent method of travel for both visitors and locals, Yerkes said. Many prefer them to ferry rides, which make for a much longer trip, and use them to visit family or commute to work in Seattle, she said.

“We’ve never really had any issues with them,” Yerkes said as she boxed up some seaweed salad. “And it’s an island. We’re at the mercy of the way we have to travel.”

Now, she said she’d be hesitant to get on one.

Tomoko Shimotomai had similar feelings of unease as she watched a seaplane, operated by a different company, glide over the harbor before taking off toward Renton Tuesday morning. Her daughter was on board.

“I definitely have mixed feelings,” said Shimotomai, a California whale-watching enthusiast who visits Friday Harbor every year. “We take seaplanes all the time. They’re so safe. I cannot possibly imagine how a seaplane could crash into the sea.”

Shimotomai has long been a part of the island’s whale-watching community and said everyone she knew was devastated by the news of the crash.

“I don’t think a lot of people can even talk about it yet,” she said. “It’s to the point where people are nauseous.”

The cause of the crash is still unknown: Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board have arrived in the area, but investigations into crashes like these often take 12 to 18 months, said Tom Chapman, one of four NTSB members at a news conference Tuesday evening in Mukilteo.

Chapman said that while officials are reviewing maintenance records, weather conditions and other data points related to the crash, they hadn’t located enough wreckage to investigate the cause.

“We feel confident that the wreckage will be located, but at this point that effort is still underway,” Chapman said, more than 50 hours after the crash. He said the crash was “an unusual situation under any circumstances.” The impact, current and depth of water at the assumed crash site have complicated search efforts and could prolong the investigation and recovery of the wreckage.

Meanwhile, Friday Harbor residents said they are hopeful the tight-knit community will unite to grieve and support the families of those who died in the crash.

“When tragedy strikes, we all come together,” said Sydney Mumford, a cashier at Kings Market, a grocery store in the center of town. “We’re like a family — everyone looks out for each other. I wouldn’t want to raise my son anywhere else.”

Mumford, who landed in Friday Harbor about five years ago after moving from Utah, said she remembered how the community raised thousands of dollars for a handful of local businesses after they went up in flames a few months ago. Most were able to reopen thanks to the donations, she said.

“I still can’t believe it,” Mumford said of the crash. “It’s so, so sad.”

While most visitors had cleared out by Tuesday, some are still in town for the rest of the week — though it was impossible to ignore the crash that had dampened a part of their vacation, particularly for a family who flew with pilot Jason Winters a day before he died in the downed plane.

Kathe Baker and her husband flew from Houston to Seattle over the weekend to visit her daughter and grandchildren, who live on Bainbridge Island. The group met in Renton and took a “seamless” Friday Harbor Seaplanes flight to San Juan Island Saturday afternoon, Baker said.

The view of the water and evergreens took her breath away, so she snapped a couple of photos and took videos, she said.

“It was perfect,” Baker said. “Not bumpy. The way (Winters) landed that plane, there wasn’t anything scary about it.”

As the family soared over Puget Sound, Winters helpfully pointed out certain landmarks and islands, she said.

“That company was continually talking to us and were so accommodating, too,” Baker said. “It was a great experience and we were just amazed by the beauty up there. … But it just has this sad vibe to it for us now.”

The community will likely continue to recover from feelings of shock and disbelief for weeks, said Yerkes. She has faith, though, that she and her friends and neighbors will be able to lean on each other.

“It’s an amazing, magical, healing place,” Yerkes said, adding that people are so friendly that many often hitchhike to work during the summer. “You never have to worry about being stranded on the side of the road.”

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