American River plane crash investigation delayed by federal government shutdown

This is the scene after small plane crashes into the American River

One person was killed and another was injured after a small plane crashed into the American River on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 near Discovery Park in Sacramento.
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One person was killed and another was injured after a small plane crashed into the American River on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 near Discovery Park in Sacramento.

New details emerged Thursday about the plane crash on the American River near Discovery Park, amid an investigation complicated by the federal government shutdown.

The crash was a failed water landing in an amphibious single-engine aircraft, Sacramento County authorities said.

Sacramento County Deputy Director of Parks Liz Bellas said Thursday that according to a direct pilot statement, one of the wheels of the plane failed to retract upon landing.

“So when the wheels hit the water, it caused the plane to tumble,” Bellas said.

The crash injured the plane’s two occupants, the male pilot and a woman. Both were transported to UC Davis Medical Center, and the man suffered non-serious injuries while the woman was listed in critical condition Wednesday. Sacramento Fire Department spokesman Capt. Keith Wade said no update on the woman’s status was available Thursday morning.

Sacramento County’s Regional Parks Department was charged with the early investigation and evidence-gathering phases after the plane crashed, even though that stretch of the American River falls under state jurisdiction.

As Bellas explained, response to a major incident like a plane crash into the river would typically be handled by the Coast Guard. But the ongoing federal government shutdown means that both the Coast Guard and the investigating National Transportation Safety Board are unavailable.

“We do not frequently have plane crashes into the river, so it is outside of the norm most definitely,” Bellas said. “We wanted to make sure that we did our best to document the incident so we could forward the information to what would typically be a responding agency.”

Bellas said authorities believe the man piloting the plane was its registered owner.

Federal Aviation Administration registry information available online shows the aircraft is a Progressive Aerodyne Inc. SeaRey, with a certificate issued in April 2015 to Keith Hezmalhalch. According to public Facebook posts by Hezmalhalch, the Sacramento-born man has worked in aerial photography and for a local TV news station.

According to a 2017 Facebook post, Hezmalhalch nicknamed his SeaRey “’lil stinker.” It is emblazoned with insignias of the U.S. Air Service, the post-World War I-era precursor to the Air Force that operated from 1918 to 1926. The SeaRey, though, was manufactured in 2007, and is classified as an “experimental” craft.

The plane crashed into the water less than a half-mile from the Interstate 5 crossing and nearby Jibboom Street Bridge.

Dozens of personnel, including park rangers, firefighters, Drowning Accident Rescue Team (DART), county Office of Emergency Services and private contractors, worked for about three hours Wednesday afternoon to drain the amphibious plane of most of its oil and tow it to shore.

Visible amounts of oil spilled into the river, but Wade said it was contained and cleaned up by hazardous materials teams.

Fire crews were tasked with mitigating the incident and the danger it presents, but getting the plane out of the water is not technically their responsibility, Wade explained.

Once the plane was towed closer to shore, private salvage workers using a winch in a Ford F-350 truck hauled the from the sand to a boat launch under the Jibboom Street Bridge, with some help from emergency personnel.

“Once the hazmat was dealt with, removal of the plane doesn’t really fall under the purview of the Fire Department,” Wade said. “We just assisted to be a good custodian to the community.”

The NTSB says on its website it is still accepting submitted accident reports, but it does not specify when they would be received. NTSB’s day-to-day operations and information notices are limited due to the government shutdown. Investigations can take anywhere from six weeks to more than two years to complete depending on complexity, according to the website.

Wade said the Fire Department has sent its incident reported to the NTSB and the FAA.

Bellas said except for the immediate area during the recovery of the aircraft, no part of the river or Discovery Park was closed by the incident.

Bellas encouraged anyone who may have witnessed the crash to call the parks’ department’s main line at 916-875-6961 and to ask to speak with Sgt. Nelson.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and lifelong capital resident, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.