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B.C. plane crash victim identified; witnesses describe 'explosion'

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GABRIOLA ISLAND, B.C.—Friends are identifying a kind, caring and skilled pilot among those killed in a plane crash on Gabriola Island.

Alex Bahlsen was born in Germany and moved to Cayley, Alta., around 30 years ago, Rasmus Rydstrom-Poulsen said yesterday.

About a year ago, he moved to Mill Bay, B.C., to live with his wife.

“He was a kind, caring, very intelligent, adventurous and fun guy—very talented,” said Rydstrom-Poulsen, who is in contact with Bahlsen's family.

Flying was a passion for Bahlsen, who was a flight instructor, charter pilot and owned an airstrip before leaving Alberta.

He was also a proud grandfather and “very good friend,” who kept up with the latest technologies, he said.

The BC Coroners Service said members of its special investigations unit arrived on the island yesterday to begin their work to determine the identities of those who died and the circumstances that led to their deaths.

First responders received reports of a possible plane crash shortly after 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

The BC Coroners Service and the RCMP confirmed there were multiple fatalities when the small plane went down in a wooded residential area, creating a “significant” debris field.

The Transportation Safety Board says it is investigating the crash of a piston twin-engine aircraft that was flying from the Eastern Sierra Regional Airport in Bishop, Calif., to Nanaimo.

“The aircraft was extensively broken up due to high impact forces,” the board said in a news release, adding its investigation team was unable to determine the aircraft registration yesterday but it will work to continue verifying that information today.

“The total number of people on board has not been verified and no one on board has been identified,” the board says.

It says the aircraft was on a private-pleasure flight. The plane was in the process of conducting an instrument approach to the airport in Nanaimo when the crash occurred, the board said.

Gabriola Island, which has a population of about 4,000, is a 20-minute ferry ride east of Nanaimo.

Michael Tumbach, manager at NXT LVL Motors Inc. in Cayley, said Bahlsen would let the company host private car racing events on the airstrip in Alberta.

“Alex would actually shut down his airstrip and let us drag race on it,” he said.

Bahlsen was a generous man and always invited guys from the shop into his house, he said.

“He was always willing to help out and make sure everyone else had a good time.”

The shop took care of Bahlsen's personal vehicles, including a snow plow for the strip, Tumbach added.

A witness to the crash described a plane hurtling toward the ground and a “huge explosion.”

Dave Holme said he ran to look for survivors.

“I saw the plane spiralling toward the ground. The engines were going . . . but they didn't sound normal,” Holme recalled yesterday.

“About five houses down from us, I saw it nose-dive into the ground, and then the explosion was just immense . . . all the houses completely shook.”

Holme said he ran into the bushes at the crash site and yelled to see if anyone was alive and able to respond.

"I was probably within, I'd have to say, five feet of the fuselage . . . and just fire—all around me, the ground was literally on fire.

“I saw the rear end of the plane sticking out of the ground . . . I couldn't see any wings. Part of the motor was on one part of the property and the other part of the motor was over on the other side of the property. It hit with such force, it just disintegrated the plane.”

The plane crashed in thick brush and scorch marks were visible on trees in the area of the crash, which is near a beach.

Rick Mayes said he lives near the crash site. He said he did not see the plane go down but felt the impact.

“It shook my house so hard that I thought it was an earthquake," said Mayes. "It was unbelievable.”

Cecil Hagen said he grabbed his flashlight and went to look outside after hearing what sounded like a loud thump followed by an explosion on Tuesday night.

“It hit hard. It was really loud,” he said.

Hagen said he got in his car and drove to where he thought the noise came from and saw flames shooting more than a metre high in the nearby trees.

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