It was shortly after 1 p.m. last Thursday, a sunny afternoon and otherwise ordinary day. Nic Turner was driving south down Herring Creek Road toward the right fork, heading back to his job as a lifeguard on South Beach, when he first spotted the Cessna Skyhawk making its final approach at the Katama Airfield.
Kristopher Hauck was sitting on an all-terrain vehicle in the parking lot of the lifeguard shack at South Beach, also watching the small plane descend towards the runway.
Kurstin Meehan was on the beach, enjoying a break after a busy morning setting up the lifeguard stands when the Cessna passed overhead.
What happened next transformed these three young Islanders from workaday lifeguards into first responders at the scene of a plane crash. The trio were among the first help to arrive at the grass airfield after the Cessna Skyhawk went down, seriously injuring the three people on board.
Yesterday the three guards were back at work, and from a foggy Atlantic shoreline, they recalled the events that took place four days earlier.
Mr. Turner remembered he was returning from lunch when he first spotted the plane coming in from the southwest. He watched it pass over the beach and then the road on what looked like a normal flight path when it suddenly made an unusual motion.
"It jolted to one side and then jerked up," he said. "The nose went straight up into the sky, it hung for a second, and then it just came down. I noticed that another aircraft (a red biplane owned and chartered by Paul Santopietro) was near the end of the runway the Cessna was trying to land on, and my first thought was that it swerved to avoid crashing into it."
Mr. Turner parked his car on the side of the road and ran to the downed aircraft. He was less than 200 yards away from the crash site.
"I slammed on my brakes so hard the anti-lock braking system came on," he said. "I grabbed my towel, hopped the split-rail fence and went straight for the plane. I wasn't thinking about anything other than the people inside and hoping it wasn't going to be too horrible. I got that sinking feeling, but you just react and have to do the best you can."
Across Herring Creek at the lifeguard shack, Mr. Hauck was on a four-wheeler in the parking lot when he observed the plane making its approach. As he watched the plane's unusual decent, he decided to call Edgartown Park Patrol officer Dennis Arnold, using a cell phone that doubles as a walkie talkie.
"I said, ‘Something is weird here,' and then, all of a sudden it crashed," Mr. Hauck recalled. "Dennis lives on Knoll Drive just down the street, and hung up and called the ambulance. I headed off on the four-wheeler."
By that time Mr. Turner had reached the crash site, and he immediately began to assess the situation. As the first person on the scene, the 20-year old Bowdoin College junior first tried to establish communication with the pilot and passengers and gauge their conditions.
He made a checklist in his mind: first and foremost, the plane was not on fire and, while crumpled, was mostly intact. There were three occupants - two men in the front and a woman in the back. The two passengers were responsive, but the pilot was slumped over in the lap of the man to his right.
The front windshield had blown out, the plane's crushed nose had pinned the two male occupants in their seats and the woman, who was also trapped in the back, was bleeding severely from her forehead. The front seat passenger was slowly coming to, but the woman in the back was already audibly upset and in pain.
"She was moaning and really confused, and bleeding badly," he recalled. "I felt like I needed to reassure her and try to calm her down."
But trying to establish verbal contact with the plane's occupants proved much more difficult than Mr. Turner had anticipated. As he soon found out, his words were not being heard. He also noticed each of the passengers wore name tags that had Deaf Pilots Association written on them. He knew that he would need to communicate visually.
"I stood in front of the plane and looked in through the opening where the window was and just tried to let them know I was there," he said. "When you're freaked out, it's nice to know someone is there with you."
He began trying to focus on the female passenger.
"I wasn't really thinking about anything other than trying to maintain eye contact with her and let her know that help was on its way. It's one of those helpless situations, but I tried to make her feel like I wasn't going to go anywhere."
The situation grew worse when Mr. Turner observed a severed fuel line that was spewing gas into the cockpit.
"It was spilling everywhere and gas was pouring all over the woman," he said.
Mr. Hauck, 26, arrived shortly after Mr. Turner. Mr. Santopietro, who had jumped out of his plane, also arrived at that time, and instructed Mr. Hauck to go back to the shack to retrieve a fire extinguisher. When Mr. Hauck returned, he saw how dangerous the situation was.
"The gas wasn't trickling out, but really spurting all over the place," Mr. Hauck said. "We all took off our shirts and tried to block the leak, because I figured the more it spread, the better chance for a fire or explosion."
A short time later fire, police and emergency medical personnel flooded the scene, and the plane was doused with fire-retardant foam.
Over on the beach, head lifeguard Kurstin Meehan saw the plane coming in for a landing, but didn't think much of it; planes buzzing over South beach on their descents are a common enough sight. But when she heard sirens about ten minutes later and found out a plane had crashed, she raced for the airstrip.
"I've done some water rescue and treated a lot of injuries like separated shoulders and dislocated knees, even some spinal injuries," said Ms. Meehan, a 21-year old senior at University of Massachusetts at Boston and an aspiring emergency room nurse. "But with this I wondered if I would be useful. I didn't want to get in the way."
Once she arrived, the three guards worked on stabilizing the female passenger, who had been extracted from the plane by emergency medical technicians (EMTs). After the woman was taken away in the ambulance, the three took on more of a support role, providing help when emergency personnel needed it.
"It was weird because just days before we had been given CPR training by some of the EMTs at the crash site, and it was like, ‘This is not a drill,' " Ms. Meehan said. "But I think given the initial chaos of the accident, we did okay."
Mr. Hauck, who is the beach director, praised the work of his two guards.
"The truth is, I was completely impressed with the way they handled themselves," he said. "They did everything right and I am very proud of both of them."
"I am excited to know that I could do it and I could handle the situation under pressure," Ms. Meehan said.
Mr. Turner agreed, but admitted he was emotionally drained afterwards.
"I broke down," he said. "I had to go home and hug my parents."