But one incident still gets to him and chokes him up nearly three years after it occurred: That is the case of a Cessna 206 that crashed in Lake Michigan about four miles off the coast of Ludington on the morning of July 23, 2010. The crash killed four of the five passengers. But it was the way that two of the victims were killed that House acknowledges bothers him to this day.
“I think of it now and the thought of them and what went on, yeah, it still bothers me. I can still see their faces as clear as the day it happened,” House said.
They never made it.
The aircraft crashed into the lake that morning. While attempting to land the plane in the lake, the pilot lowered the flaps to flare the plane out. The Cessna hit the water, the engine was ripped off, and the fuselage flipped upside down. The pilots and the doctor, who were all sitting in the front seat, got out. Pavlik and his wife remained inside. Because the flaps were locked into their extended position, blocking the rear door, they were prevented from opening it. The flaps couldn’t be moved because the engine was ripped off the plane.
“They were basically trapped in the plane,” House said.
Six days later, Sgt. House and his dive team’s side-scan sonar s made contact with the plane, finding it in 173 feet of water, about three to four miles from the shore between Big Sable Point and Ludington harbor. The Pavliks were still in the back seat -- Don Pavlik still strapped in his seat belt, Irene Pavik resting on his lap.
“It looked like he was hugging her. And it looked like she was trying to get the door open,” House said, his voice choking at the memory.
House and his dive team were actually fairly close to the accident scene when the plane went down. Normally based in Coldwater, House and other rescue team divers were training in Rodgers City when they got the call and immediately headed toward Ludington. They gathered information from the ELT (emergency locator transmitter) that was activated when the plane hit water. Within six hours of the plane going down, the dive team was on the water, setting up a square-mile perimeter grid around the beacon and began side-scan sonar searching. The search came up empty.
The team headed back to shore, talked to a charter boat captain who had seen the plane go down, looked at the FAA flight path that had been recorded prior to the plane dropping below radar and received information from the pilot, who had been picked up by a nearby boat. The team went back out and set up a two-square-mile grid with two crews working 24-hour shifts in an attempt to locate the aircraft. In addition to the difficult environment, the search was hampered by the sonar equipment becoming tangled in commercial fishing nets.
Finally, in the early evening hours of July 29, the crew found the plane upright on the bottom of the lake and the engine nearby. The first recovery dive took place at 7:20 p.m. That’s when divers found the Pavlik’s bodies still seated inside the plane and the reason why they couldn’t open the rear door. The following morning, the dive team cut the flap actuator rod that held the flaps in the open position and recovered Irene Pavlik. The resulting silt from removing Mrs. Pavlik left zero visibility. That, combined with floating luggage, entangled medical equipment, the width of the diver’s double tanks and the narrowness of the doorway made it impossible to remove Mr. Pavlik. He was recovered later that day.
On July 31, Dr. James Hall was recovered nearby the plane, and on Aug. 1, Earl Davidson’s body was recovered, also near the plane. Presumably, both men drowned sometime after exiting the plane. Only the pilot survived the accident.
It was the deepest recovery dive since the inception of the Michigan State Police underwater rescue unit in 1957, and House’s deepest personal dive. It was also fraught with difficulty, dealing with the environment, the lack of visibility, the wind and the waves and its location so far offshore.
But as is the nature of his job, each day has its rewards and its heartbreak.
“It’s one of those bittersweet things. I love diving. I love state police diving and the recovery work because somebody’s got to do it,” House said. “I’ve been told ‘this is a gravesite, shouldn’t you leave it alone?’ But people want their loved ones back, and so that’s part of it you feel good about. You are excited when you got them out of the plane, but it’s also very tragic.”