By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 2 -- The wreckage of the stunt plane that adventure pilot Steve Fossett flew into a Nevada sky 13 months ago was discovered on a California mountainside Thursday morning. Federal investigators found a small amount of human remains in the debris field, indicating an impact that no one could have survived.
"It was a head-on crash into the side of a mountain, into a rock," said Madera County Sheriff John P. Anderson. "The plane disintegrated. We found the engine 300 feet from the fuselage.
"The crash looked so severe, I doubt anyone could have walked away from it."
National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker told reporters in Mammoth Lakes that DNA tests would be conducted on the unspecified remains retrieved from the crash site, on rugged terrain 9,700 feet above sea level. Investigators said that after more than a year, most remains probably were removed by wild animals.
The Citabria Super Decathlon crashed several hundred feet below a ridgeline that local officials said may have been obscured by clouds on Sept. 3, 2007, when Fossett took off from a Nevada ranch about 60 miles due north. The federal investigation will attempt to determine the precise cause of the crash.
The crash site was about quarter of a mile from the spot where hiker Preston Morrow came across three weathered ID cards and a handful of hundred dollar bills Monday. Morrow, who manages a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, was off marked trails, taking a shortcut to a mine, when he spotted the items.
"My eye caught something in the pine needles," he said.
The discovery, near Minaret Lake, between the town of Mammoth Lakes and the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park, was within the 20,000-square-mile area that aircraft scanned during their search in September 2007. But the wreckage was well south of the area searched most intensively.
Fossett, 63, took off alone on Labor Day 2007 without saying where he was going. In the weeks that followed, a search that included the Civil Air Patrol, the National Guard and dozens of fellow adventurers, was concentrated in the mountains and dry lake beds to the north of Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, located west of Hawthorne, Nev.
But the area where the wreckage turned up had recently become the subject of intense interest to a handful of persistent searchers operating both on evidence and hunches.
The evidence included radar traces and interviews with eyewitnesses who described seeing a plane similar to Fossett's on the day it disappeared. The hunches arose from conversations at a memorial service held in Chicago last March, after Fossett was declared legally dead.
The occasion brought together fellow adventurers from the astonishing array of pursuits that Fossett cherished, and set world records achieving. "There were astronauts and pilots, balloon guys, boat guys, submarines guys, skiers, mountain climbers, swimmers -- just every adventure sport you could think of, there were people there," said Mark Rebholz, an Arizona aviator who had co-piloted an open-cockpit biplane with Fossett across the Atlantic.
While exchanging reminiscences about the mild-mannered millionaire, Rebholz said, it emerged that around the time of his disappearance Fossett had spoken of his desire to climb all of the 14,000-foot peaks in his native California -- "sort of check all the boxes off."
"It's possible he was out sightseeing, and looking at the peaks he'd climbed or looking at peaks he hadn't climbed and looking for routes up them," said Rebholz, who spent much of the summer helping with the aerial assault on wildfires in Bishop, Calif., not far from where Fossett's wreckage was found.
"Ever since he was a teenager, he was hiking and skiing in this very area," Rebholz said. "He had climbed many of the 14,000-foot peaks in California, but he had not climbed all of them, and he had told people he wanted to climb all of them."
That information reinforced information gathered by Chris Killian, a Southern Californian with a record of locating crash sites. Killian had gathered evidence suggesting that Fossett headed south toward California after taking off from the Flying M.
Rebholz said Killian had talked, for instance, to a state trooper who was writing a ticket when he saw an airplane he identified as Fossett's headed south. Rebholz was sufficiently impressed with Killian's work and track record that he spent a half-day searching the area around Mammoth Lakes for evidence that Fossett might have crashed there.
"About three weeks ago, I was up checking on some of his possible routes," Rebholz said. "And I flew right over where they found that airplane. From this information [Killian] had compiled, we all agreed he was further south than the original search area and probably somewhere in the eastern Sierras."
The state of the wreckage may explain why an emergency transponder did not emit a signal to rescuers. Rebholz said that on the Decathlon, the device's antenna would not survive a violent crash.
It also appeared to sweep aside theories -- chiefly that Fossett might have faked his death -- that emerged following his disappearance.
"The good news is this will put to rest all the frivolous stories that have been going around," Richard Branson, the entrepreneur who had flown with and sponsored Fossett on attempts to set aviation records, said on "CBS News."
Fossett's widow issued a statement thanking Morrow and the hundreds who participated in the search effort.
"I hope now to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life," Peggy Fossett said. "I prefer to think about Steve's life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments."