About this time of year there are precious few hours of daylight in the small town of St. Mary's in faraway western Alaska, and so it was already dark and frigid by the time paramedics arrived at the wreckage of a Cessna 208 airplane outside town.
What they found Friday night was tragic: The plane carrying 10 people had crashed on a snowy slope, killing the pilot and three passengers — one of them an infant.
But rescuers say there could have been more casualties if it weren't for the courage of one survivor — the infant's mother — who climbed out of the wreckage and trudged through the dark and icy fog to find rescuers, who had set out from town into the wilderness to look for the crash.
Residents took to trucks and snowmobiles, forming their own search-and-rescue effort, but couldn't locate the downed plane — or the rest of the survivors — until 25-year-old Melanie Coffee struggled toward town and pointed the way. By the time the two paramedics arrived by plane, about 50 people from the town were already on the scene, tending to the survivors and helping carry them to safety.
"They're the true heroes in this," one of the paramedics, Clifton Dalton of LifeMed Alaska, said of the residents in a phone interview. "They had people there to carry all those patients. Had the crash been farther away from the village, or had the village not been there, I think the outcome would have been very different."
Accounts of Friday's backcountry rescue continued to trickle out over the weekend as officials and rural Alaska residents were trying to take stock of what happened.
"Everybody is still in shock," said Kate Thompson, a resident of nearby Mountain Village, where some of the plane's passengers reportedly lived. "It's very hard."
The Hageland Aviation flight had been making the 100-mile hop from Bethel, Alaska, to St. Mary's, population 531, and crashed about four miles outside St. Mary's airport at 6:34 p.m Friday, the company said in a statement.
Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said the wreckage was found about 8:30 p.m., and that bad weather prevented National Transportation Safety Board investigators from reaching the crash site Saturday.
"Hageland is working to gather information to answer questions and do what we can to ease the suffering of those involved in the accident," said Hageland Aviation President Jim Hickerson. "As a family-owned business, this is an unspeakable tragedy for us."
One village police officer, Fred Lamont Jr., told the Anchorage Daily News that Coffee at first tried to make a phone call for help while she gave CPR to her infant son, Wyatt, who died.
Coffee, who was the only survivor without leg injuries, set out for the town and soon linked up with a rescue party.
"It's unbelievable," Lamont told the Daily News of Coffee's effort after losing her son.
The two LifeMed Alaska paramedics said the town's residents bushwhacked through the tundra and brought their own stretchers to the crash site, which was inaccessible to snowmobiles.
Six to eight people at a time helped carry the survivors to safety, with replacements taking turns as volunteers tired in the 12-degree cold.
"It was heavy, it was slippery, a lot of people were running out of breath," said paramedic Dalton, noting that it took about half an hour to get from town to the crash site.
The six survivors were ultimately flown more than 400 miles to Anchorage, where most remained hospitalized in fair condition Sunday.