When Erika Rodgers first heard of her husband’s plane crash near Dillingham, she braced herself for the worst.
Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement Trooper Justin Rodgers, 33, formerly of Soldotna, had crashed March 21 while checking trap lines with his father, Chuck Rodgers, who was flying in a separate plane.
The elder Rodgers arrived at a cabin first after checking the lines and realized his son had been delayed.
He retraced the route and found Justin’s Super Cub had crashed nose first into a valley near the Kilbuck Mountains about 90 miles north of Dillingham.
“It was at least an hour after the crash,” Chuck said from his son’s hospital room Friday.
A retired wildlife trooper himself, Chuck had seen enough small plane crashes during his 24-year career to know this crash was bad.
“This was no fender bender. It was a fatality-type crash,” he said.
Chuck saw the burned remains of his son’s plane and no sign of life.
There was nowhere to land his own plane safely, and all the father could think to do was call for help.
But something told him not to give up hope.
Rescue squadrons from Fort Richardson were dispatched and in the air in an HC-130 Hercules plane and an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with pararescue jumpers aboard.
Arriving on scene at about 10 p.m., five hours after the crash, the Hercules crew launched flares lighting up the valley below.
Minutes later, the helicopter crew spotted the wreck and saw Justin wave. They landed nearby to begin the rescue.
“It was about midnight when I got the call saying there was a survivor,” Erika said Thursday.
“When Chuck first called and told me Justin wrecked and it didn’t look good, I thought, with all his experience, he would know,” she said. “All I could do was wait, and hope.”
Justin, a Soldotna High School graduate, and Erika, a second-grade teacher in Dillingham, and from the time she first learned of the crash until midnight, she thought she had lost her husband.
However, Justin had escaped from the wreck before it burned, crawled away and then crawled back after the flames blew out in the 30 to 35 mph winds.
He managed to position his broken body beneath the plane’s engine for warmth in the near zero temperatures.
“Considering what he’s been through, he’s doing really well,” Erika said from Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage on Thursday. “I’m just happy he’s here.”
She said both of Justin’s ankles were broken, his right lower leg and right hip were broken, his left shoulder was broken and his left eye socket was shattered.
So far, doctors have put two plates into his hip, as well as one plate into his face to support the eye, and have grafted skin onto his back left shoulder and both inner thighs, which were burned.
His last surgery is scheduled for Monday.
“Then they told me it will be several weeks before he can use his shoulder and six to eight weeks before he can use his legs,” Erika said.
“They said it will be six months or a year before he will be back well doing normal things,” she said.
She is not sure where they will live during the long rehabilitation, as her husband will undoubtedly need more medical care than is readily available in Dillingham, where they just finished building their house.
“I’m not sure if we’ll stay (in Anchorage) or in Soldotna where his parents live,” she said.
In the meantime, Justin’s parents, Chuck and Jeanette Rodgers, and Justin’s sister, Jessica Moore, are organizing fundraisers to help with expenses not covered by insurance.
The state employee union has set up an account in Justin’s name at Wells Fargo Bank for anyone who wants to help.
Erika and Justin’s parents are sharing a room at Providence House in Anchorage during his stay in the hospital, and she said she is doing fine just knowing Justin survived.
Married just over five years, she said, “We’re still very much in love.”
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