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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

Plane-crash survivors endure painful recovery

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Dallas and Catherine Ratcliff saved and borrowed to put together enough money for a Hawai'i vacation to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. They planned to take tour flights around the state, including a trip around the Big Island.

Dallas and Catherine Ratcliff suffered serious burns when their tour plane went down on the sloping terrain of Mauna Loa.

Photo courtesy of family

On April 18, their vacation ended and the pain began. That's when the single-engine Island Hoppers tour plane they were in crashed and burned near Miloli'i, severely injuring the Ratcliffs and the pilot, Jelica Matic.

Nearly one year later, the Ratcliffs are only now settling back into their home in West Portsmouth, Ohio, after months of recovery in North Carolina, where Catherine Ratcliff's two daughters are nurses. The couple are still healing, while facing almost $1.5 million in medical bills from Hawai'i alone.

Speaking from their Ohio home, Catherine Ratcliff, 64, recalled the moments before the crash when thick clouds and heavy rain enveloped the Piper Warrior aircraft at about 4:45 p.m. Ratcliff, who was sitting behind Matic, said she told the pilot, "We can't see a thing."

Matic reassured the two passengers the flight would emerge from the clouds momentarily, but when it did, the pilot gasped. The plane was barely clearing the tops of trees, and the sloping terrain of Mauna Loa was dead ahead, Ratcliff said.

"We came out of the cloud and the sun was shining and there was the mountain, and she said, 'Oh my God, we're too low, we're going to crash. I've got the throttle pulled all the way back and it won't go up, we're too low,' " Ratcliff recalled. "By that time, we were topping the trees and hitting the volcano.

"We didn't even have time to get prepared."

She credits their survival to a higher power, calling it "a great miracle story."

"I think God and his angels in heaven slowed that plane down and set it down easy," she said.

Matic and the Ratcliffs were uninjured in the impact, but all three were burned in the fire that erupted almost instantly. Dallas Ratcliff, 62, was seated next to the pilot. With his badly burned hands, he struggled to release his seat belt as Matic tried to help.

His wife's shoes caught fire, and her face and hair were burned, along with her arms, hands and knees.

Call for help

After the three emerged from the plane, they used Dallas Ratcliff's cellular phone to call for help. But Matic was confused about the location of the crash, telling rescue workers they had gone down south of Miloli'i, when, in fact, the plane was miles in another direction, Catherine Ratcliff said.

Her husband, who was burned over almost 60 percent of his body, said he didn't realize how badly he was hurt until it began to rain. The sting of the raindrops was almost unbearable.

"It was such a cold rain, I couldn't hardly stand it," he recalled.

The wreckage offered partial shelter, and Matic decided to hike out to get help.

It was dark when the Ratcliffs heard the sound of search aircraft and saw search lights. Dallas Ratcliff stood on the wreckage waving a flotation device to try to attract attention, and then tried using a T-shirt.

At 9:09 p.m., a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane spotted them in a lava field 4,100 feet above sea level. A rescuer was lowered from a Coast Guard helicopter and the Ratcliffs were lifted to safety.

Matic was found at the bottom of a 100-foot ravine about 150 yards from the crash site, burned and going into shock. As they waited for the helicopter to return, she told a rescuer that a severe downdraft had forced the tour plane down.

Honolulu treatment

The National Transportation Safety Board has not released an official finding for the cause of the crash, although a preliminary report noted the pilot's flight plan indicated she would follow visual flight rules. That method of flying normally requires pilots to avoid clouds that limit visibility.

Dallas Ratcliff vividly recalls being inside the rescue helicopter, but remembers little else of the two weeks that followed. The couple was treated for five weeks at Straub Clinic & Hospital in Honolulu, and "they medicated us both heavily, but we still both cried tears. I'm telling you, it was painful," Catherine Ratcliff said.

"I'm not ashamed to say, there was a few times that I wished I had died on that mountain."

She has since had to undergo throat surgery four times on the Mainland to remove scar tissue from her throat.

The Ratcliffs sued Matic, Island Hoppers and its affiliated companies, but their lawyer, Ned Good, said the tour company carried liability coverage of only $100,000 per passenger. Matic was unavailable for comment and Island Hoppers did not respond to a request for comment.

Good, who said he is representing the Ratcliffs free of charge, has urged the healthcare providers that treated the couple to waive charges.

Claire Tong, marketing and communications manager for Hawai'i Pacific Health, the parent company of Straub Clinic & Hospital, confirmed her company has been in discussions with the Ratcliffs about their bill. She said the company has several programs in place to help people who have no health coverage or cannot pay their hospital bills.

Catherine Ratcliff said there is no way she and her husband, a retired welder and mechanic, will ever be able to pay their medical bills. "We're just about to go under," she said.

Dallas Ratcliff said the couple still have months of medical treatment ahead.

"It's been a real tough road for us the whole way, and I understand that it will be another year before we will be back" to where they might have been if not for the crash.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.