Rescue personnel examine the wreckage of a Cessna 180 that crashed shortly after takeoff Friday morning, May 27, from the Birchwood Airport. All five onboard died in the accident.
Star Photo by Matt Tunseth
An Eagle River family built on faith and flying was mourning the loss of five members after a fiery plane crash the morning of Friday, May 27, near the Birchwood Airport.
According to Anchorage police, pilot Lonn Greiner, 46, his mother, Carolyn, 69, and three of his children, Glory, 13, Nathan, 11, and Grace, 10, perished when Greiner's green and tan Cessna 180 crashed shortly after takeoff at around 10:15 a.m. Witnesses said the plane had trouble gaining altitude before plunging onto Alaska Railroad tracks next to the airport.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident. Anchorage police said the plane was bound for Seldovia for a Memorial Day weekend getaway. The family had a cabin near the South Peninsula village.
Lonn Greiner's wife and the children's mother, Denine, was not aboard the plane, nor was Greiner's other son, 15-year-old Lorne. Carolyn Greiner is survived by her husband, Dale.
Sharilyn Greiner lost her mother, brother, two nieces and a nephew in the crash. She said Monday that the surviving family members will rely on their devout Christian faith to get through the tragedy.
"We still have God first and foremost in our lives," she said.
Brad Bartlett, a local pilot who witnessed the crash from his hangar, said Greiner's plane veered left after takeoff, went over a stand of trees and crashed facing north on a set of railroad tracks adjacent to the airport.
"It went nose up high to the left, back around and right down," said Bartlett. "It was out of control immediately."
As Bartlett spoke about an hour after the crash, members of the Anchorage Fire Department, Anchorage police and the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department worked at the deadly scene behind him. All that remained of the plane was a tail section, part of a wing and a pile of smoldering wreckage.
Bartlett said he heard an explosion and rushed to the crash site with an axe in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other. But he and others who responded to the wreck ("everybody at the airport") could do little to help those inside.
"It was fully engulfed in flames," he said.
Bartlett said he had known the Greiners for about 15 years.
"Very good people," he said.
The Greiner family's history in Alaska dates back to 1967, when Dale and Carolyn Greiner drove up the Alaska Highway from Idaho in search of the Alaskan dream.
"It was out of a sense of adventure," Sharilyn Greiner said.
Both private pilots, the couple moved to Eagle River, where they instilled in their children their shared love of aviation and the Lord.
will be held at 1 p.m. today at Muldoon Community Assembly. The public is welcome.
"It's just in our nature," she said.
For the past 18 years, Carolyn Greiner also worked as a real estate agent in Eagle River. She worked at the Re/Max of Eagle River office for years before embarking as a publisher of the Homes & Land of Greater Alaska magazine, a position she shared with Dale and Sharilyn.
"She's great people, a great lady," said Re/Max broker Al Romaszewski, who was stunned to hear news of the crash the morning it happened.
Dale and Carolyn Greiner attended Eagle River Grace church, while Lonn and his family went to Muldoon Community Assembly. Sharilyn Greiner said the two congregations came together to help the family in the days following the crash.
"Both churches have surrounded us with love and support," she said.
Sharilyn said Lonn graduated from Anchorage Christian Academy before attending LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas, where he trained at a mechanic. That's where he met his wife, Denine, who moved with him to Alaska after graduation.
"They decided they wanted to start their family in Alaska," she said.
Lonn and Denine had four children, all of whom were home-schooled through the Anchorage School District's Family Partnership Charter School, according to ASD superintendent Carol Comeau.
Assembly member Bill Starr, who is also a pilot, said Lonn worked for him as a project manager during a hangar construction project at Birchwood. Starr said the two talked once a week, and described Greiner as an experienced pilot and meticulous mechanic.
Lonn Greiner built Ed White's Cessna 185, and White knew the Greiner kids through their frequent trips to Lonn's hangar at Birchwood. White said the group was as close-knit a family as you'll find.
"Those kids were there all the time," White said.
Comeau also said the Greiner family has a reputation for being extremely close-knit and added that they were "really active with young people."
A week before the crash, she said, Lonn Greiner accompanied a field trip to the Challenger Learning Center, a nonprofit center in Kenai that educates students about space and science.
The Greiner kids had many friends at Eagle River Elementary, Comeau said. The school's principal arranged to have counselors on hand Tuesday (May 31) for any children or parents who wanted to come in and talk about the tragedy.
Ed White said the crash won't be an easy thing for the Greiners' friends and family to deal with.
"It's gonna be a big loss to the Birchwood community for sure," he said.
Sharilyn Greiner said the kids were very active in sports and church youth groups, and 10-year-old Grace had recently returned from a mission trip to Yakutat with Denine.
"All of the kids were active at Muldoon Community Assembly," she said.
The two girls were members of the Excel Gymnastics program in Wasilla, while "Nate" loved to play Mustang hockey (he was third on his team in scoring last season), where Lonn coached both his sons.
More often than not, grandma Carolyn was in the stands cheering all of them on.
"She loved anything to do with her grandchildren," Sharilyn said.
She said the surviving family members are taking solace in the fact that their loved ones died doing what they loved.
"My brother and my mother were strong Christian believers and they lived their lives for the Lord every day," she said.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, June 1, 2011.