The small southern Utah town of Blanding is in deep mourning as two members of the City Council and a former member were killed in a plane crash Friday morning.
"This is an extraordinarily heavy hit for our community," said Mayor Toni Turk. "To take a hit like this is a pretty difficult thing."
Current Blanding Councilmen Eric Lyle Johnson and Brian Bayles and former Councilman Kim Acton were pronounced dead at the scene near the Monticello Airport after their plane crashed as they were scouting for elk in preparation for the hunting season.
The accident happened about 7 a.m. Early indications were their single-engine Piper was attempting to make an emergency landing in a wheat field, according to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office. The crash will be investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Weather reportedly was not a factor in the crash.
"Everybody knows everybody (in Blanding) in one way or another. We're probably all related to one another. It's very difficult," Turk said. "All the men were deeply entrenched in the community."
Showing how just about everyone in town has a connection to one another, Turk noted that all three men belonged to the same ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and their bishop was fellow city Councilman Joe B. Lyman. Acton's wife is a teacher at Blanding Elementary School and will have one of Bayles' children in her class next year, Turk said.
"All three are men of exceptional integrity and dedication (to) their wives, children and community. Their contribution cannot be measured. They will be missed more than can be expressed," Lyman said.
Johnson and Bayles, both in their mid-30s, were born and raised in Blanding. Both had several young children.
"We just lost two of our most vibrant young men that have given an enormous gift of their time and talent," Turk said. "They were vibrant, full of energy, full of life, full of commitment to the community, willing to go the extra mile to provide service. The energy they gave was a tremendous asset to our community ... their judgment, their experience. We just had a council meeting Tuesday night. Eric sat to my right and Brian two seats to my left. They weren't reactive, they were proactive members of the City Council."
Bayles recently had opened a small hamburger restaurant in town called The Patio Drive Inn.
Emma Bayles, a waitress at the Old Tymer Restaurant and a relative of Brian Bayles, talked to Brian Bayles and Kim Acton Thursday night.
"Everyone loves to go (to The Patio). (Brian) is so open-armed and willing to help everyone," she said. "They were probably three of the best men in Blanding. It was rough on all of us. We're just all really close in this town."
Acton, 51, wasn't originally from Blanding but had been in the area so long that he was considered a native son, Turk said. Acton, who has a son currently on an LDS Church mission, was a former bishop in the church and was working for Sysco Foods at the time of his death.
"He was the person we called for our orders," said Sharon Guymon, owner of the Homestead Steak House. "I talked to him for an order last night. It's a tremendous loss. All of the men were pillars of the community."
"He is straight-up the nicest guy I know," Emma Bayles added.
Johnson was the pilot, said Turk, who described Johnson as an experienced pilot who the day before had flown with two other city leaders to Salt Lake City to help get funding for a new wellness center in Blanding.
Johnson's father was killed a couple of years ago in an ultra-light plane crash, Turk said.
Johnson was the main electrician at Northern Electric, according to residents. He also coached his son's baseball team.
"I know all three men. All three were really good men. It's a hardship on the town," said Ted Black, who works at True Value Hardware. "It just feels like there's a wet blanket over the whole town. You just don't believe stuff like that until you hear it from more than one source. They were really good guys, all of them. Really nice men."All flags in Blanding were lowered to half-staff Friday.