BY CORY MCCOY AND CAMERON PROBERT
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.
A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report on what occurred usually takes about two to three weeks, board spokesman Peter Knudson told the Herald.
The board’s investigation is trying to initially determine whether a systemic failure caused the crash, so it can be addressed immediately.
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.