RANCHITA (CNS) - Authorities Monday recovered the remains of three victims from amid the wreckage of a plane that crashed and ignited a forest fire last week in a remote and rugged wilderness area near Volcan Mountain.
With help from National Transportation Safety Board personnel, a search-and-rescue team early this afternoon airlifted the remains out of the steep terrain where the aircraft went down for unknown reasons Thursday evening, sheriff's Lt. Greg Rylaarsdam said.
After firefighters extinguished the 12-acre blaze ignited by the crash, deputies discovered the bodies Sunday morning. However, the challenging territory made it impossible to move the remains except by helicopter, and high winds prevented the sheriff's aircraft from reaching the remote canyon until today.
"Our number-one mission and priority (was) to get those souls off the mountain," Rylaarsdam said.
The lieutenant described the crash site in a gorge known as Arkansas Canyon as a "treacherous climb, in and out," and likened reaching it by foot as "hiking almost down the face of a cliff."
Making matters worse were the still-smoldering remnants of the vegetation fire. The ground was so hot that firefighters warned the sheriff's search team Saturday that their ropes and boots would melt if they tried hiking down to the aircraft wreckage.
On Sunday, still wary of using climbing lines, Cal Fire crews laid down dry hoses that sheriff's personnel were able to use to climb down to the crash site, the lieutenant said.
The remains will be turned over to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office for identification and family-notification purposes.
Officials believe that the crashed plane was a twin-engine Beechcraft Duchess that was registered at El Cajon's Gillespie Field. The aircraft was due to land at Ramona Airport on Thursday night but never showed up and remains unaccounted for.
A Julian resident reported seeing a plane going down near Volcan Mountain around 8:30 p.m. Thursday. Less than 30 minutes later, authorities got word that a brush fire had erupted in the same general area.
An NTSB contractor was at the crash site this morning, Rylaarsdam said. The federal agency is responsible for identifying the plane and investigating the crash. Authorities were hoping that there were large enough pieces of the plane left to allow for identification of the wreckage, Rylaarsdam said.
While working to get the bodies out of the crash site, officials also gathered pieces of the demolished aircraft to aid in the investigation.
"We have not yet been able to confirm whether or not the wreckage of this plane is the missing plane from Gillespie Field," the lieutenant said.
Though the blaze, dubbed the Volcan Fire, was fully contained as of this morning, firefighters expected to remain at the scene at least until midweek, monitoring the burn area and snuffing out remaining hot spots, Cal Fire spokesman Issac Sanchez said.