As the bodies of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four other victims of Monday's plane crash were returned to Anchorage, federal officials on Tuesday began their investigation into why the single-engine floatplane flew into a mountain north of Dillingham.
The crash tragically cut short a planned silver salmon fishing trip to the Nushagak River for Stevens and the eight others on board the plane, a vintage de Havilland Otter owned by the Anchorage telecommunications company GCI. The passengers were guests of GCI and were staying at a GCI-owned lodge on the Agulowak River near Lake Aleknagik.
Four passengers survived the crash and were flown by the Coast Guard to Anchorage hospitals. Former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe was reported in critical condition, while his son was listed as serious. The conditions of the other two, lobbyist Jim Morhard, 53, of Alexandria, Va., and Willy Phillips, 13, of the Washington, D.C., area, were not made public.
In addition to Stevens, the victims were identified as Dana Tindall, 48, of Anchorage, a GCI senior vice president; Tindall's daughter, Corey, 16; Washington, D.C., lobbyist Bill Phillips, a former Stevens chief of staff; and Willy Phillips' father; and the pilot, Terry Smith, 62, of Eagle River, a retired Alaska Airlines chief pilot.
A high-level team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Anchorage Tuesday to begin the investigation. As NTSB staff flew to Dillingham, where bad weather kept them from the crash site, the board's chair, Deborah Hersman, held a news conference at Ted Stevens International Airport to report preliminary findings based on interviews of rescuers and other witnesses.
The plane was on the mountain for several hours before it was noticed missing. Then, with Alaska Air National Guard and Coast Guard rescuers unable to reach the site, the survivors spent Monday night at the wreckage, some still trapped inside. They were assisted by a physician and local emergency medical personnel flown to the site by area helicopter pilots before the clouds descended.
It could not be determined whether all the victims were killed on impact, or whether any perished later.
Air National Guard and Coast Guard reached the wreckage shortly after 7 a.m. Tuesday. They freed the trapped survivors and transported the four by helicopter to Dillingham.
Hersman said in Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon that the plane came to rest in a ravine with a 30-degree slope, about a 15-minute flight from the GCI lodge. The area was steep, slippery and wet, she said.
Hersman said the plane and its passengers left the lodge after lunch, between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
About 6 p.m., someone from the GCI lodge called the fish camp to see when they would be returning for dinner.
"And it was at that point that they found out that the group never arrived at the fish camp," Hersman said.
At a late-morning news conference in Anchorage, Maj. Gen. Tom Katkus, the Alaska National Guard commander, said the plane didn't send an automatic locator signal when it crashed, but he could not explain why.
John Bouker, owner of Bristol Bay Air Service in Dillingham, had just finished an air taxi flight when the FAA flight station in Dillingham mentioned to him Monday evening that the GCI plane was missing.
"Dillingham flight service station told me that GCI was concerned about the location of their Otter," Bouker said in a phone interview. "So I got the information where they were going from and where they were going to and I backtracked their flight path."
Others were looking too, including GCI president Ron Duncan, a jet-rated pilot.
After searching about 35 minutes, Bouker said, he spotted wreckage about 1,000 feet up an unnamed mountain in the Muklung Hills, about a third of the way from the lodge to the fish camp.
"I found them on a side of the mountain at about 1,000 feet, right below the fog," Bouker said. "The fog kind of cleared and I found the airplane in the side of the mountain."
The Otter had plowed into the hill, Bouker said. "He bounced up the mountain. He looked like he was in a full-power climb."
From the air, the plane appeared mostly intact, he said. "It looked like it was survivable." He didn't see anyone on the ground, but the rear door was open.
Within 15 minutes, helicopter pilot Tom Tucker of Tucker Aviation in Dillingham had landed on a ledge above the crash site. A GCI employee was in Tucker's aircraft, Bouker said. Another commercial helicopter pilot, Sam Egli of Egli Air Haul in King Salmon, also got to the scene, Bouker said.
The helicopter pilots landed in the fog, Bouker said. "They came down in the pitch-ass dark in a raging-ass storm. I don't know how they did it. Those are the heroes."
The pilots carried emergency medical technicians from Dillingham to the scene, but they couldn't free the injured passengers.
"They were trapped in the airplane. They could not get them out," Bouker said. They needed tools to extract the trapped people.
Kevin O'Keefe, the son of the former NASA head, was in the front right seat with serious injuries, Bouker said; he didn't know where the other survivors were.
One of the rescuers brought to the site was a physician, who was dropped off 1,000 feet from the crash and had to bushwhack through willows and alder to reach the victims, said Hersman of the NTSB.
The doctor had a satellite phone and radios, and people on the scene were in contact with the lodge and Dillingham, Hersman said.
There was no post-crash fire, though the doctor could smell fuel, and no one was ejected from the aircraft. The wings were swept back and debris littered the hillside for about 100 yards, she said.
By the time the doctor arrived, one passenger had been able to leave the plane, Hersman said.
She did not identify the doctor or name the passenger who freed himself.
Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks said the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center reported that conditions were marginal when rescuers arrived in the morning by helicopter. "There's less than a quarter-mile visibility and less than 100 feet of ceiling ... between the clouds and the ground."
Before GCI bought the lodge for entertaining company officials, clients, friends and others, it was known as the Wood River Lodge and was open to the public, said Robin Samuelsen, chief executive of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.
The region, much of it inside Wood-Tikchik State Park, is upriver from Bristol Bay. It is studded with magnificent lodges, many of them catering to well-heeled clients.
"It must be what heaven looks like," Samuelsen said.
The views and fishing come with pricey rates. Clients who aren't wealthy often talk about a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" as the reason they go.
Companies also maintain lodges for business reasons. A lawsuit in Anchorage some years back revealed that the Anchorage Native corporation Cook Inlet Region Inc. had access to a place called the Golden Horn Lodge, where it entertained board members, staff, clients and politicians. Stevens was forced to reimburse the owners in 2007 when the Daily News reported he stayed there in 2001 and 2003 but didn't disclose the visits as gifts.
As beautiful as the region is, it is also notorious for white-knuckle flying, with frequent low clouds, rain and winds.
Hersman of the NTSB said Smith, the pilot, had a long resume in the cockpit. As of his last medical, in December 2009, he had an estimated 29,000 hours total flight time, she said.
But many of those hours were spent in commercial passenger jets. "We need to determine how much time in this (aircraft) and how familiar he was with the route," Hersman said. "That's one of the questions that our investigators will be asking, about pilot experience."
In a statement, Alaska Airlines said Smith retired from the airline after a 28-year career. He served as chief pilot in the airline's Anchorage base and pioneered its service to the Russian Far East in the late 1980s. In 2001, he received the company's highest honor, its Customer Service Legend Award.
Smith was the father-in-law of Maj. Aaron Malone, a pilot who was killed July 28 when a C-17 crashed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, said family friend Jim Bridwell, another retired Alaska Airlines pilot.
Most of the other passengers had some kind of tie to Stevens or GCI.
Phillips worked for Stevens from 1981 to 1986, according to his law firm biography. He was a frequent attendee during Stevens' trial on corruption charges in 2008, sitting among the senators' friends and relatives. As a lobbyist and lawyer, Phillips specialized in regulation, transportation, telecommunications, technology, energy and national defense issues -- all subjects under Stevens' purview in the Senate.
Morhard was a former staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee under Stevens. He left that job to found Morhard and Associates, a lobbying firm, according the Washington, D.C., publication The Hill. A 2003 profile of him in National Journal described him as "serious and soft-spoken."
The nine people in Monday's plane crash near Dillingham:
The five who died:
Ted Stevens, 86, former U.S. senator, homes in Girdwood and Washington, D.C.
Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River, a retired 28-year Alaska Airlines captain. Flying the plane Monday.
William "Bill" D. Phillips, Sr. Former chief of staff for Stevens in the 1980s. A lawyer. Faithfully attended Stevens' corruption trial in Washington, D.C.
Dana Tindall, 48, of Anchorage. A senior vice president of GCI. With the company more than 24 years.
Corey Tindall, 16. Tindall's daughter and a student at South High School.
The four who survived:
William "Willy" Phillips, Jr., 13. Son of Bill Phillips.
Sean O'Keefe, 54. Former NASA chief.
Kevin O'Keefe. O'Keefe's son.
Jim Morhard, 53, of Alexandria, Va. A former staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee under Stevens. Left that job to become a D.C. lobbyist whose clients included the Air Transport Association of America.