MATINICUS ISLAND, Maine — As the small plane rose into the clear blue sky above Matinicus Island on Saturday afternoon, passenger Eva Murray clenched her husband’s hand in the back seat.
“You okay?” Paul Murray asked her.
It was the first time they had flown with Penobscot Island Air since pilot Don Campbell crashed and died Wednesday evening in the woods near the island’s gravel runway. The Murrays were heading to the mainland for his funeral, but it wasn’t the easiest trip. Although the Cessna’s engine roared confidently as it climbed higher, Eva, 47, still held tightly to her husband.
Just three months ago, she had been on a flight to the mainland with the same flying service when something went wrong shortly after takeoff, leading to what she later would call “one bad minute.”
The engine didn’t sound right, the plane couldn’t gain enough altitude, and pilot Robert Hoffman’s demeanor changed as he worked intensely to safely land the single-engine Cessna 206 and its three passengers.
“He never panicked or took his hands off things, even for a second,” she said.
Eva, a freelance writer, baker and emergency medical technician, recalled earlier Saturday how she moved the microphone of the headset that the passengers and pilot normally wear in order to communicate aboard the noisy plane.
“So if I screamed, or said anything, I wouldn’t disturb the pilot,” she said. “I had an instant where I wondered if it was real.”
Then the plane “ditched,” or made an emergency landing into the Atlantic Ocean about 150 meters off the island, the force of which may have caused her to black out for a few moments.
“I have no recollection of going down,” Eva said. “We went from hitting the water to me being in the water.”
When she came to, she was underwater in the downed plane. She couldn’t see anything, and had to grope her way to the pilot’s side to escape the plane. It was cold and frightening and she was bleeding profusely from deep gashes on her face, but Eva doesn’t remember those things.
“I was more clear-headed and rational than I’ve ever been in my whole life,” she said from her cozy, cluttered island kitchen, where she had just taken three loaves of raisin bread from the oven. “I was in robot mode … I had less pain, less fear, than I had any right to have.”
Eva was the last person to surface — taking so long to do so that Hoffman had gone back down underwater to start looking for her.
Passengers Abagail Read, 56, of Appleton and Karen Ford, 53, of Waterville already had gotten free of the wreck. Finally, they were all together, four people with various injuries clinging to the “pod,” or baggage storage compartment that was the only part of the plane still afloat. It recently had been repaired by an islander who added foam.
“Without knowing it, he had built us a life ring,” Eva said.
Because it was Sunday, the Matinicus lobstermen weren’t out hauling and no one saw the plane go down. But the plane’s internal emergency system sent a signal to a military satellite and company owner Kevin Waters became aware that something was wrong and sent another airplane to find the first one. That pilot spotted the survivors clinging to the pod and radioed for help.
Within minutes, the Matinicus fleet had roared out of the harbor to respond to the crash.
“It looked like the whole Stonington lobster boat race was heading for us,” Eva remembered. “It was an amazing feeling.”
Fishermen Robert Young and Clayton Philbrook hauled the survivors out of the water and onto their boats. They were then taken to the harbor, put in trucks to be moved across the island to the airstrip and then put back on a plane to get to PenBay Medical Center in Rockport.
Eva said that she was quickly taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland by LifeFlight helicopter. There, a plastic surgeon put her face back together, she said.
“They did a beautiful job,” she said.
Gashes that had been cut open to the bone in July were, 10 weeks later, almost unnoticeable fading scars that she had to point out.
Despite that scary experience, she has not lost confidence in Penobscot Island Air.
“We trust them deeply,” she said. “Unfortunate things happen, but not from any lack of experience or professionalism on their part. They’re people who have been flying for many decades. We know we can count on them to know what to do.”