TED STEVENS, 1923-2010

Weather will determine when investigators can access plane crash site

Former senator Ted Stevens, one of the most powerful congressmen of his generation, was killed Aug. 9 in an airplane crash in a remote part of southwest Alaska.
By Dan Eggen and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; 12:01 PM

Federal investigators are hoping for a break in stormy weather Wednesday in the wilderness of southwestern Alaska so they can access the site of the plane crash that killed U.S. senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and four others.

Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CNN that her team will search for "avionics or other devices that may have memory" to help determine why the ruby-red 1957 DeHavilland floatplane collided with a remote mountainside on Monday afternoon.

Two of the four people who survived the crash, including former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, were reported hospitalized in critical condition.

Hersman said investigators must be flown to the site and will not be able to get there while visibility and conditions remain poor. "We're going to have to see what the weather looks like," she said in a televised interview at 5 a.m. in Alaska (9 a.m. in Washington). "we have a lot of work ahead of us."

Investigators do not expect to find a black box or flight data recorder on such a small aircraft, but should find some clues among the remains of the plane, Hersman told the cable news station. "The wreckage is going to help to tell the tale of what happened."

Key information could come from talking to survivors, who in addition to O'Keefe include his son, Kevin; Jim Morhard, an Alexandria lobbyist who had worked for Stevens on Capitol Hill; and 13-year-old William "Willy" Phillips Jr., whose father, Washington lobbyist William "Bill" Phillips, was killed in the crash.

"We'll talk to them when they're ready to speak with us," Hersman said.

The floatplane came down in the rain and mist late Monday, unnoticed by radar and unreachable by official rescue teams until morning.

It would take nearly a day before authorities publicly confirmed the identity of one of the victims: Stevens, a political legend who spent most of his life nurturing the state he helped to found a half century ago. The force of the collision tore a 300-foot gash in the side of the mountain about 17 miles from the town of Dillingham, crushing the nose of the plane but leaving the passengers -- both alive and dead -- inside the fuselage, according to an NTSB official. With temperatures dropping into the 40s, a doctor and two emergency technicians were airlifted into the area overnight until a full-scale rescue could begin after daylight Tuesday.

In addition to Stevens and the elder Phillips, others killed included the local pilot and an Anchorage communications executive and her teenage daughter, according to Alaska state troopers.

Sean O'Keefe was listed in critical condition and Kevin O'Keefe in serious condition at an Anchorage hospital, the Associated Press reported late Tuesday. There was no word on Morhard's or Phillips Jr.'s conditions. The elder O'Keefe, Stevens's longtime friend and fishing companion, is a former NASA chief and Navy secretary who heads EADS North America, the U.S. affiliate of the European aerospace and defense consortium. Both he and Morhard had worked for Stevens on Capitol Hill.

Stevens, 86, was a wiry, fiery sparkplug of a politician who funneled billions in federal aid to Alaska. He was proud and unapologetic about his efforts to steer lucrative projects to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states, and successfully fought a corruption conviction that cut short his political career two years ago.

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