ST. GEORGE — Four people died when a single-engine Cessna crashed near the St. George Municipal Airport early Saturday morning.
Assistant City Manager Marc Mortensen said the Cessna 172 was discovered around 6 a.m. about 300 feet south of the airport's runway and is believed to have crashed around 1:30 a.m. There were no eyewitnesses to the crash and no airport personnel present at the time.
City officials said they would release the names of those involved Sunday morning, but family and friends confirmed that two of the men involved were Colby Hafen of Santa Clara, near St. George and Tanner Holt.
"The airport is not staffed at that time of night," Mortensen said. "We operate through an automated system as far as clearing the air space, so there is no one that approves takeoffs or approaches."
But it did not appear that reaching the aircraft immediately after it crashed would have made a difference to the four people on board.
"Even if we could have discovered this within minutes, it's apparent that there were no survivors and everyone died on impact," Mortsensen said. "Whether you discover it two minutes later or four or five hours later, I think it's insignificant in this case."
The crash, the first at the airport, which opened about a year and a half ago, will be investigated by Federal Aviation Administration officials as well as the National Transportation Safety Board. Federal investigators were expected to be on site late Saturday to determine what caused the crash.
"We are not certain what phase of flight the aircraft was in when it crashed," said Federal Aviation Administration communications manager Ian Gregor.
The NTSB will lead the investigation and the NTSB investigator usually posts a basic preliminary report on the agency’s website, www.ntsb.gov, within a week or two of an accident. However, it typically takes NTSB months to come up with a probable cause for accidents, Gregor said.
Mortsensen said that because crash occurred so far from the runway, it did not interrupt airport operations Saturday and all private and commercial flights proceeded as scheduled.
"This is extremely unfortunate to have this occur," he said. "You never want this type of event to occur near or around your airport or to anyone who frequents your airport, so I would imagine that those who possibly know the pilot or the owner of the aircraft would be pretty devastated. Our hearts go out to family members and anyone who knew those who were involved."
Hafen's family sent out a statement about Colby Hafen and said that he was loved by all who knew him and will be sorely missed. They described Hafen as a "wonderful son, brother and uncle" who adored his nieces and nephews.
"He loved to travel and explore other countries," they wrote. "He also loved hunting, fishing, boating and anything in the outdoors."
They said he served an LDS mission to Oregon and was working in the insurance business with his father. An avid sports fan, Hafen also loved being with people.
"He could always bring a smile to anyone's sad day and had the most loving and giving heart," his family wrote. "He could light up the room with his contagious smile and infectious personality."
Family members confirmed Tanner Holt was also killed in the crash. Holt's friend, Paul Hogue, said he couldn't believe what he was seeing when he checked his Facebook account and saw the messages about Holt's death.
"I know he has friends all over the state of Utah that are posting on Facebook like crazy," Hogue said. "He's a great pilot from what I understand."
Hogue and one of Holt's family members reported that the man was a trained pilot who has flown commercially. Hogue said he doesn't know what caused the crash, but he and Hafen and Holt's family members mourned the death of these four individuals.
There was no information released concerning who was flying the plane.
"The future can be taken from you so quickly and they had so much for their future," Hogue said. "They had future families and future wives and kids."
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez