GREENVILLE, S.C. — The two South Carolina families were so close that some thought their children were brothers and sisters. They were so close that they wanted to spend 10 days together on an adventure into the Alaska wilderness.
The five members of the Antonakos family and the four members of the McManus family died Sunday with their pilot in a fiery crash of a plane shortly after takeoff from an airport about 75 miles southwest of Anchorage. It was to be the last leg of a long-awaited vacation. All 10 aboard the de Havilland DH3 Otter were killed.
Milton Antonakos, called Melet by most everyone, met Chris McManus just as they were beginning their families. Their families attended the same church and spent leisure time together on a South Carolina lake. Their oldest daughters and only sons were about the same age, so it was almost a perfect match.
Chris McManus was a smart, compassionate radiologist, according to his boss. Friends said McManus' wife Stacey loved teaching Vacation Bible School. Their 17-year-old daughter Meghan was looking at colleges and 15-year-old Connor was almost an Eagle in Boy Scouting.
"They basically grew up as brothers and sisters," said Tyler McDougald, his eyes red after a night of crying from losing one of his best friends. He grew up with Connor McManus.
Friends said Melet Antonakos sold computer software to doctors. His wife Kim was always volunteering at her children's school. Their 16-year-old daughter Olivia was top in her class; 14-year-old Miles was elected class president and 11-year-old Anastacia, usually sporting a big bow in her hair, made friends with everyone.
Both families were longtime members of Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville, leaving the Rev. Harrison McLeod searching for words to comfort his congregation.
"This isn't just a huge loss for us. It is a huge loss for the community. These were good people, some of the best people you would want to know," McLeod said
The families were booked on a flight leaving Soldotna, Alaska, to visit a remote bear-viewing lodge in Chinitna Bay.
The plane, which seats up to 11, crashed and burned on takeoff at the small Soldotna airport, landing more than 2,300 feet from the departure point and 88 feet off the right side of the runway, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Tuesday at a news briefing in Anchorage.
There is no surveillance footage of the crash and no one has come forward who witnessed the accident at the airport, which does not have a control tower, authorities said. As with many small airports, pilots follow standard practices such as communicating with each other.
It took firefighters 10 minutes to put out the flames.
Soldotna police have not released the names of the victims, pending positive identifications from the state medical examiner's office. But word spread quickly through Greenville as authorities called South Carolina counterparts, seeking dental records and other information.
The pilot of the downed plane was Walter "Willie" Rediske of Nikiski, Alaska, according to Rediske Air, which operated the aircraft.
The NTSB sent a team to Alaska. The investigators recovered five cellphones from the wreckage, which will be analyzed for any pertinent information to better understand what happened in the final moments, Weener said. Investigators also hope to learn more from a flight tracking device in the plane that could upload such information as altitude and speed through satellite.
It was the ninth fatal crash in Alaska involving a de Havilland Otter since 1975, including one that crashed in 2010, killing former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others, according to an NTSB database. Sunday's crash brings the total deaths from those crashes to 30.
The Alaska trip was the second big adventure vacation for the families.
Two years earlier, friends said, they visited Yellowstone National Park and had a great time. They were eager for a second trip because they had grown so close, said Tyree Byrd, who lives across the street from Melet Antonakos.
"There are families you like to be around," Byrd said, calling them "great people."
As Byrd spoke, friends and neighbors talked about divvying up such heartbreaking tasks as caring for a pet cat and cleaning out one family's refrigerator.
Melet Antonakos was a Clemson University graduate who attended all the school's football games. He also coached basketball at church. All of his children and all the McManus children played for him at one time.
"I'm going to miss calling them on the phone and getting advice," said friend Katherine Daniels. "I have kids in middle school, and they knew just what to do. They were so wise."
The McManus family was gentle and caring, a trait friends said came both from Chris and Stacey McManus.
Chris McManus worked as a radiologist for Greenville Health System for 14 years. Full of joy, he was one of the most competent, compassionate doctors around and a "true physician in every sense of the word," said his supervisor, Radiology Department Chairman C. David Williams III.
Stacey McManus kept teaching Vacation Bible School at Christ Church, even though her children had grown too old to attend, said McLeod, the church's rector.
This is the latest tragedy for his church and its 4,000 members. On June 28, a longtime church member died in a small plane crash in Summit Lake, Alaska. On June 9, two other members died from carbon monoxide poisoning after accidentally turning on their car with a keyless starter, authorities said.
McLeod pauses when asked what he'll tell grieving church members.
"It is a reminder to all of us that life is fragile and life is a gift from God," he said, adding "we believe with every fiber of our being that they are in heaven and we will be reunited again one day."
Rachel D'Oro contributed to this report from Anchorage, Alaska.