Former NASA head Sean O’Keefe improving in Anchorage hospital after crash that killed Stevens

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ex-NASA head O’Keefe improving after Alaska crash

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe’s condition is improving after he was injured in the Alaska plane crash that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others.

A spokeswoman at Providence Alaska Medical Center, where the four survivors were taken, says O’Keefe’s condition has improved from critical to serious.

O’Keefe’s son, Kevin, remains in fair condition. Jim Morhard also is in fair condition, and William “Willy” Phillips Jr. is in good condition.

The group was flying to a fishing camp Monday when their plane crashed.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services said Friday that all five people who were killed died from blunt-force injuries.

State medical examiner Katherine Raven tells The Anchorage Daily News the blunt-force trauma injuries weren’t survivable and that the victims likely died soon after impact.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A guide says Ted Stevens’ last day of fishing was a very good day — the former U.S. senator was in great spirits as he casted for silver salmon at an Alaska camp and raved about the spinning lures he was using.

“He was happy to be there,” camp guide Byron Orth said. “The fishing was so good, he was planning to come back the next day.”

But the 86-year-old Republican and four others died the next day when their floatplane crashed en route from a corporation-owned lodge to the Nushagak River camp. Four others on board survived and are being treated at an Anchorage hospital.

The lodge called guides and told them the party was heading out there, but no one ever showed up and Orth figured the trip had been canceled. Hours later, the lodge called and asked if the group was heading back yet.

Everyone figured it couldn’t end well, said Orth, a Beaverton, Ore., resident who has spent the past six summers working at the fish camp. He’s seen Stevens there over the years.

“You’re hoping for the best, but there’s a bad feeling in your stomach,” he said.

Federal investigators have finished much of their work at the site of Monday’s crash in rugged, mountainous terrain about 20 miles north of Dillingham. Now the focus shifts to interviewing survivors and hoisting the wreckage from a steep mountainside.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Thursday investigators hope to tighten the timeline for details on departure and recognition the plane was missing as well as search and rescue activities. They also plan to bring the wrecked plane down to a hangar for further inspection.

Stevens’ daughter said her father, a pilot in World War II, was an advocate of making planes safe.

“He loved flying … he got certified to fly floatplanes just a few years ago,” Lily Stevens Becker said Friday on the “Today” show. “He had no concerns about flying in Alaska, but he was concerned about making planes as safe as possible.”

Stevens Becker said her family shared her father with Alaska and that they have been heartened by the outpouring of support.

“The support of all of our friends from around the state, the country and the world is really meaning everything to us right now,” she said. “It sounds strange, but I honestly believe that he was in the prime of his life at 86. He was so energetic; he was constantly making plans for the future.

“We shared him with Alaska. Alaska is a small state and we’re like a bit family here. It is like hearing stories from family about what he meant to them.”

There remain plenty of unanswered questions, with investigators receiving conflicting information as to when the float plane left the lodge for the fishing camp and when the wreckage was discovered.

Hersman said some of that may be due to people’s memories and to the “fog of an accident.” Investigators hoped that interviews with those involved — including survivors — would help fill in the blanks. They also requested tapes from the Federal Aviation Administration to help pin down the search and discovery time, and they were looking to see if there were any weather cameras or pilots who were flying in the area to help shed light on conditions.

Orth said the day was rainy at the camp but there were no strong winds and he saw other aircraft flying overhead.

Had the plane taken the most direct route from the lodge to the camp, the flight would have lasted about 15 minutes, Hersman said. It’s still not clear, though, whether that was the route taken. Departure times gleaned so far by investigators have differed by about an hour, as has the timing of the wreckage discovery. Orth recalled the lodge calling shortly after 2 p.m. and again around 7 p.m.

No emergency beacon went off, Hersman said, adding that investigators were looking at whether the plane had been equipped with that technology.

At midday Thursday, Hersman estimated interviews had been conducted with 10 to 15 people, but that number didn’t include those who could provide especially critical information — the four survivors. Interviews also had not been done with those at the fish camp or with everyone who was at the lodge, Hersman said. Investigators also were still trying to speak with officials from General Communications Inc., the phone and Internet company that owned the lodge and to which the plane was registered, she said.

A doctor who is married to the head of GCI was among the first to arrive at the scene of the crash, company officials said.

Anchorage-based pediatrician Dani Bowman was at the GCI lodge when the crash occurred and she was flown to a nearby air strip by her husband, GCI president Ron Duncan, in his floatplane.

“As soon as Dani knew there were survivors, she wanted to get to the scene to provide medical attention,” Duncan, a private pilot, said in a statement.

A helicopter flew Bowman and other responders to the wreckage.

Bowman is not commenting further, GCI officials said.

Authorities tried to speak with survivors Wednesday and Thursday, but they weren’t ready, Hersman said.

On Thursday, an Anchorage hospital listed the condition of the two of the survivors, Kevin O’Keefe and Jim Morhard, as fair, and William “Willy” Phillips Jr., whose father was killed, as good. Former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe, Kevin O’Keefe’s father, remained in critical condition.

Hersman said there had been upgrades to the 1957 model plane and investigators reported finding a “nicely equipped” cockpit, though the extent of those upgrades wasn’t immediately clear.

Authorities said the plane lacked a technology that Stevens had championed to improve air safety in Alaska, which is intended to allow pilots to see cockpit displays, concise weather information and location of other aircraft in the area.

But Hersman cautioned against any rush to judgment on whether technology of some kind could have prevented the crash, noting that investigators themselves had reached no conclusions on the accident’s cause.

It was unlikely investigators from the NTSB team out of Washington would return to the site of Monday’s crash, which occurred in rugged, mountainous terrain about 20 miles north of Dillingham, but the work is far from done, Hersman said. Besides the interviews, plans also call for using a heavy-lift helicopter to take the wreckage to a hangar in Dillingham for further inspection. That process could take a day or so.

Meanwhile, Stevens’ family said his funeral has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Anchorage Baptist Temple, with a reception to follow. A separate memorial will take place Tuesday, when Stevens will lie in repose at All Saints Episcopal Church in Anchorage.

Both events will be open to the public.

Associated Press reporter Mary Pemberton contributed to this report from Anchorage, Alaska.

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