Waving hand 1st clue of AK crash survivors

Posted: Thursday, August 12, 2010

DILLINGHAM -- One of the pilots who saw the wreckage of the amphibious plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens, his fishing companions and their families strewn across a mountainside remembers thinking: No one could've survived.

Ap Photo/Alaska State Troopers
Ap Photo/Alaska State Troopers
This image provided by the Alaska State Troopers on Aug. 11, 2010 shows the wreckage of the amphibious plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens, which crashed on Monday, Aug. 9, 2010 into a remote mountainside during a fishing trip, killing the state's beloved political figure and four others and stranding the survivors on a rocky, brush-covered slope near Dillingham. Three teenagers and their parents, including the former head of NASA, were on the plane when it plowed into the mountain with so much force that it left a 300-foot gash on the slope, federal investigators said. The photos were taken as a trooper flew overhead in a state helicopter when weather allowed Alaska State Troopers to get near the scene.

Then, he heard another pilot say on the radio: A hand was waving for help from a window of the red-and-white aircraft.

"It surprised me," said Eric Shade, 48, owner of Shannon's Air Taxi.

Within hours, a fishing trip that Stevens and his friends have made for years to a southwest Alaska lodge -- sometimes drawing criticism for discussing government business there with lobbyists and lawmakers -- ended with five dead, including the state's most revered politician, and four survivors.

The cause of the crash was being investigated on Wednesday, but officials said a technology that Stevens had long pushed to improve air safety in Alaska wasn't install in the downed plane. It was unclear whether the instruments would've prevented the crash Monday night.

Several medical volunteers who scrambled up the muddy, boulder-strewn slopes to the crash site found the survivors trapped inside the fuselage, with one still strapped into the co-pilot seat, and five dead nearby.

Stevens, 86, had close ties to everyone on the plane, including Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company that owned the plane, and the lodge where the passengers were staying.

"These were old friends who stayed in touch and loved him," said Stevens' friend, Russ Withers.

Stevens and ex-NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who was also on the plane and survived, were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee led by the GOP lawmaker. Stevens became a mentor to him.

Phillips and Jim Morhard, who survived the crash, also worked with him in Washington. Morhard founded a lobbying firm. Phillips was a lobbyist.

Authorities said the group boarded the 1957 float plane between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. local time for a trip to a salmon fishing camp.

Lodge operators called the fish camp at 6 p.m. to inquire when the party would be returning for dinner, but were told that they never showed up. Civilian aircraft were dispatched, and pilots quickly spotted the wreckage a few miles from the lodge, authorities said.

A doctor and EMTs were flown to the area and hiked to the wreckage as fog and rain blanketed the area and nightfall set in, making it impossible for rescue officials to reach the scene until daybreak.

Tom Tucker, who helped shuttle the medical workers to the scene, described seeing a survivor still strapped in the front seat with the nose of the plane disintegrated. His head was cut, and his legs appeared to be broken.

"The front of the aircraft was gone," Tucker said. "He was just sitting in the chair."

He and the other responders made a tarp tent over the missing cockpit to keep him dry. It was rainy and cold, and he believes the passengers' heavy duty waders protected them when they went into shock. Temperatures ranged from about 48 degrees to 50 degrees overnight at Dillingham.

"These individuals were cold. We covered them up with blankets and made them as comfortable as we could," he said.

The flights at Dillingham, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage, are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather.

Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are inaccessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt in June credited the technology -- a surveillance system intended in part to help pilots have a greater sense of awareness when they're nearing bad weather -- with "making a real difference" in air safety in Alaska.

The plane Stevens was on was not outfitted with that technology, Jim LaBelle, regional director for the NTSB, told The Associated Press. He declined further comment, deferring to the investigative team.

The technology, hailed by the FAA as "the future of air traffic control," is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B. It's meant to help replace the radar that pilots and controllers now rely on with GPS technology.

What this means for pilots is an ability to see on cockpit displays weather information and location of other aircraft in the area.

The system can cost from $7,600 to $10,900 to equip a general aviation aircraft, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. Plans currently call for all aircraft, flying within certain controlled air space, to be equipped with the technology by 2020, she said.

Alaska was one of the first test sites for the program. In June, FAA said that, under the Capstone project, it has equipped "hundreds of general aviation aircraft" in southeast Alaska with ADS-B avionics and installed related infrastructure on the ground.

The other people who died are: pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River; and Tindall's 16-year-old daughter, Corey. In addition to O'Keefe, his son Kevin and Morhard, the other survivor was Phillips' son, William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13.

Paul Pastorek, who's acting as a spokesman for the O'Keefe family, said in a statement Wednesday that the injuries to O'Keefe and his son don't appear life-threatening, "and we are confident they will have a full recovery." Morhard was listed in serious condition.

GCI frequently hosted high-profile guests, politicians and regulators at the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik for fishing trips, drawing scrutiny from Alaska lawmakers over whether the expeditions violated ethics rules.

At a hearing, lawmakers grilled GCI executive Dana Tindall, who died in the crash, about the trips.

Tindall testified that Stevens and William "Bill" Phillips Sr., who died in the wreck, once arranged for a staff member to travel to the lodge to learn about the telecommunications world as GCI looked to expand its business.

"We entertain business associates. We entertain -- there have been FCC commissioners out there. And there have been members of the United States Congress out there," Tindall told lawmakers.

Associated Press writers Rachel D'Oro and Dan Elliott in Anchorage and Becky Bohrer in Juneau contributed to this report.

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