Thursday, May 11, 2017

Team seeks funding to solve 30-year Indiana Dunes plane crash mystery


Three decades ago, on a frigid winter’s night spitting snow, a single-engine aircraft carrying two couples bound from Ohio to Wisconsin crashed into the waters of Lake Michigan off the Indiana Dunes shoreline.

The only witness to the accident--an ear-witness who happened to be outside his home in the Dunes at the time--reported hearing a power dive, then the sound of a muffled impact. The man promptly called police and two officers just as promptly responded but, in the darkness and deteriorating weather conditions, they saw nothing on the extensive shelf ice nor anything beyond the ice either. Best guess: within minutes of hitting the lake, the plane, with its four occupants, was probably already resting on the bottom.

An extensive air and surface search commenced the next day, with the U.S. Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol, DNR, Indiana State Police, and local law enforcement all contributing resources. The operation was severely hampered by poor weather, however, no debris was found, and after three days--with no reason to believe anyone survived the crash--the search was ended.

Ten months later, in the fall, the body of a man later identified as one of the passengers was recovered on the beach in Beverly Shores, not far from the presumed crash scene. Five years later, a piece of an aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer--the flat portion of its tail--was also recovered from the beach, although it’s not believed to have ever been positively identified as part of the plane which went down that January night.

And there, for a quarter of a century, the matter stood. At lake’s bottom: two mothers and a father. In Ohio: five orphans denied the opportunity to grieve their parents properly, at graveside. Here in Duneland: loss has succeeded loss, as sorrow has sorrow--it’s the way of community--and what Lake Michigan did to the aircraft, swallow it utterly, so time and the years have done this tragedy.

Kolibri Forensics

Then, several years ago, an Indianapolis man named Stephen Richey came to learn of the accident as an undergraduate, while working on an aircraft crash survivability project. At the time it seemed likely to Richey that, with a little more information and the right equipment, a team might not only succeed in locating the plane which had gone down a generation earlier but also--more to the point--find the craft intact with the three remaining victims aboard.

That hunch Richey filed away, only to return to it in 2016, when he co-founded Kolibri Forensics, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing forensic search-and-recovery services to law enforcement, county coroners and medical examiners, and families “who otherwise would not have access to them.” On casting about for Kolibri’s first case, Richey immediately recalled the 30-year-old crash in the Dunes.

His initial move: to assemble, with the assistance of local authorities, as complete a documentary record of the accident as still exists, from the days before digitizing. From that information Richey has narrowed the probable location of the plane to a reasonably contained area some hundreds of feet offshore in the Dunes and at an accessible depth of between 40 and 90 feet.

A Grave Site

Richey prefers at this time not to comment further on the plane’s suspected location, just as he prefers not to comment on other details of the crash: the exact date of the accident, the names of the victims, the model of the aircraft, and the pilot’s flight plan. His reason: the crash site is also a grave site, and while the Northwest Indiana dive community is famously decent and compassionate, there’s no getting around the fact that a few bad apples--possessed of the pertinent information--might get it into their heads to go grave-robbing.

“There are few things more disrespectful than grave robbery,” Richey told the Chesterton Tribune. “And that is a very real risk in a case like this where the depth of the water does not keep all but the most skilled divers at bay. Most divers are incredibly respectful but there are a few whose moral compass points south.”

In any case, those tempted to dive the wreck themselves should know this: doing so would be a crime as well as a descration, says Porter County Coroner Chuck Harris. “The Coroner’s Office is asking anyone who comes in contact with the wreckage of the plane or any potential human remains to be advised that it’s the Coroner’s jurisdiction to investigate the scene as long as human remains are present. Anyone who interferes with the investigation in any way could face fines and/or criminal charges. Persons with information about the crash are asked to contact the Coroner’s Office at (219) 548-0208.”

Planning a Search

Kolibri’s next move, accordingly, planned for sometime this summer: to conduct a search of the suspected crash site with side-scan sonar. “A number of factors argue that this is a viable choice for a search,” Richey says. “The only way to prove that is to get boats out on the water and see if the information we have been able to collect so far leads to a resolution for the missing and their families.”

“Most aircraft that have similar speed capabilities to this one remain intact when they hit water,” Richey adds. “So in my opinion, and in that of all of the sonar specialists I've spoken with, there is a high likelihood that the aircraft should be readily recognizable.”

Kolibri’s principals certainly have the chops for the operation. Richey himself is a trained diver and former deputy coroner, has a background in emergency medical services, and served stateside with the U.S. Air Force. His wife is likewise a diver and EMT. Other Kolibri board members include an Indianapolis paramedic; a Colorado emergency physician who is also a pilot and diver; and a Canadian aviation archaeologist.

Supplementing the team will be a side-scan sonar operator from Minnesota, who will supply a boat and possibly a small remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV); and a group of volunteers from Michigan, who will provide two other boats, one capable of supporting divers, and at least one additional side-scan unit.

Funding Needed

What Kolibri does not currently have is sufficient funds to cover the expenses of the anticipated five-day operation: travel, fuel, food, accommodations. Richey estimates the total cost at $4,000. None of Kolibri’s personnel will make a dime off the project--none of them, he says, would accept a dime--but boats with side-scan don't go into the water for free.

To that end, Richey has created a GoFundMe for the project. Visit www.GoFundMe and search for “Kolibri Forensics.” To date contributors’ pledges have put a good-size dent in the $4,000 goal, but a significant shortfall remains.

Richey is specifically appealing to the generosity of Dunelanders, not just to help solve a 30-year-old mystery in their own backyard but far more important to help return the victims’ remains to their loved ones. “Missions like these are important for a very simple reason,” he says. “Show me how a person respects their dead and I can tell you with certainty their moral character, their respect for others, and their aspiration to the ideals that make a country great.”

“To anyone questioning the value of such a mission,” Richey suggests, “I would ask this question: What would you say if it were your mother or father? If it were your child? Would you want them safe and secure and buried with dignity? Would you want them to come home? That is what we are trying to offer the families in this case.”

“When you take on a case like this, what keeps you going through all the tools and snares is the fact that you become responsible for and accountable to the missing,” Richey adds. “In a way, they become like family you never knew. So you persevere because you owe it to them and their families. Someone has to take up the mantle for those fallen and when the time comes, every single person at Kolibri is willing to raise their hand. That’s why we’re here.”

Original article can be found here:

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