Investigators arrive at Stevens crash site as another drama plays out on a faraway glacier
As investigators took advantage of improving weather Wednesday in southwest Alaska to reach the plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens, another air rescue team concluded a frustrating battle to rescue passengers and crew from two downed aircraft high on Knik Glacier.
The Alaska National Guard had to straddle two dramatic crash scenes, both with low clouds, remote locations and high winds. And Tuesday, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter hoping to pluck five victims of a Sunday plane crash off the glacier instead slid and rolled over — adding the helicopter crew to the growing list of those needing transport off the icy, cloud-shrouded mountain.
By Wednesday afternoon, the last four bivouacked guardsmen on the glacier had been recovered by helicopter, and investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board had reached the Stevens crash, near Dillingham, to begin conducting initial inquiries, authorities said.
“We’re so remote and so vast that air transportation is one of the only ways to get around to some of these places. So unfortunately, aircraft accidents are common. And sometimes it seems like a lot’s going on,” said Alaska Air National Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks.
In Dillingham, investigators for the NTSB were attempting to determine why the single-engine float plane carrying Stevens and seven other passengers to a fishing trip Monday on the Nushagak River would have crashed into a mountainside about 15 minutes into its flight.
Five of those aboard, including the pilot, died. Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, Stevens’ longtime friend, remained in critical condition in an Anchorage hospital. His son, Kevin, was in serious condition. Friends of the family said both were expected to survive.
Two other passengers also survived, but NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday that their injuries were too severe to allow investigators to question them.
The glacier drama began Sunday, when Donald Erbey, 49, flew four friends from Texas on a sightseeing tour over the glacier, 40 miles northeast of Anchorage. Hitting a sudden downdraft, he crashed into a snowbank 8,500 feet up on the glacier.
The group had no warm clothing or food for survival. Unable all afternoon to reach them by air in the worsening weather, the National Guard deposited a rescue team further down the glacier at 10 p.m.
But fighting blizzard conditions, rescuers needed nearly 24 hours to hike and ski the four miles to the crash site, then waited with the group for more help. Helicopter crews bumping up against cloud covers were still trying to reach the now nine people on the glacier when Stevens’ plane was reported down about 6 p.m. Monday near Dillingham, about 350 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Air National Guard Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis and his crew were diverted from the Knik operation to the Stevens crash. They flew through the night, refueling midair, amid clouds hovering 200 feet off the ground, and neared the town of Dillingham about midnight.
“We lost [visual] contact with the ground,” Davis said. “That was probably the most stressful part of the whole mission for the pilots — having to deal with no references to the ground, it being dark, and having to transition” to instrument flight.
Rescuers left Dillingham at dawn. At the crash site, they found three extra people who had managed to get there the night before — one of Stevens’ fellow lodge guests, a physician, and two emergency management technicians. They were sitting in the chilly drizzle, trying to comfort the survivors.
It was a tableau of misery, Davis said.
“It was quiet. None of the survivors were really talking. They were pretty exhausted, they’d been out there all night, they were dealing with their pain and ailments,” he said. “The smell of fuel was on the ground.”
The passengers didn’t talk, he said, except to ask for pain medication. The youngest survivor, apparently 13-year-old Willy Phillips Jr., was outside the broken aircraft, slipping in and out of sleep, Davis said. The youth appeared to have a broken ankle.
Rescuers cut a hole in the plane to pull out the injured. They put them on litters, carried them to a clearing that rescuers had scratched out of the brush, and finally hoisted them into helicopters.
Back at Knick Glacier, the Black Hawk helicopter that had been trying to extract the survivors and rescue team toppled over on the mountainside Tuesday afternoon — not long after the last of the Stevens crash victims had been removed.
Methodically, Guard helicopter crews lifted first the passengers, then the rescuers, off the glacier. The four-member rescue team inserted on the mountain Sunday was the last to leave Wednesday.
“The weather has been just very difficult,” said Maj. Guy Hughes, a Guard spokesman. “We’ve had a rough couple of days.”