Investigators arrive at scene of Stevens crash as crews recall harrowing rescue efforts

By Rachel Doro, AP
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Investigators arrive at scene of Stevens crash

DILLINGHAM, Alaska — A rescuer who helped carry survivors off a muddy, brush-covered mountain said they were dazed, bloodied and in severe pain after escaping death in a plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens.

Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis told The Associated Press that he and fellow rescuers had to hack their way through thick brush to navigate the damp mountainside while comforting survivors with broken bones, cuts and bruises. Three of the survivors were still trapped in the plane, and they had to cut open the aircraft to remove them.

“They didn’t do too much talking with us,” said Davis, one of the rescuers lowered onto the mountain from a helicopter. “If they did talk, they were asking for pain medication, and we helped them with that.”

The account shed more light on the harrowing night that the passengers spent on the mountain after crashing Monday on a fishing trip. Stevens was one of five people who were killed; four survived and remained hospitalized.

The cause of the crash was being investigated on Wednesday as National Transportation Safety Board officials hiked to the scene and began examining the wreckage, chairwoman Deborah Hersman said. They had hoped to interview the survivors Wednesday in the hospital but their medical conditions made it impossible.

Officials said a technology that Stevens had long pushed to improve air safety in Alaska wasn’t installed in the downed plane. It was unclear whether the instruments would’ve prevented the Monday crash.

A pilot who spotted the wreckage of the float plane looked down on the gashed mountainside and thought that no one could’ve survived such a crash.

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 because I didn’t think it was survivable,” said Eric Shade, 48, owner of Shannon’s Air Taxi.

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

“These were old friends who stayed in touch and loved him,” said Stevens’ friend, Russ Withers.

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 in 2002, lawmakers grilled GCI executive Dana Tindall, who died in the crash, about the trips.

Tindall testified that Stevens and William “Bill” Phillips Sr., who also 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.

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.

The other people who died are: pilot Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River; and Tindall’s 16-year-old daughter, Corey. Authorities said autopsies were performed on all five victims and a toxicology screen was performed on the pilot, both standard procedures. Results weren’t immediately available.

In addition to O’Keefe, his son Kevin and Morhard, the other survivor was Phillips’ son, William “Willy” Phillips Jr., 13. He was in good condition.

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.

Authorities said the group boarded the 1957 float plane sometime Monday afternoon 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 in shambles. 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.

Stevens was a legend in his home state, where he was known as “Uncle Ted.” The wiry octogenarian was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. He brought billions of federal dollars home for projects.

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

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