Weather will determine when investigators can access plane crash site

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.

Sad ironies surround Stevens's death. He survived a private Learjet crash in Anchorage in 1978 that killed his first wife, Ann, and four others, a tragedy that friends say haunted him. He was a former World War II pilot with a fondness for aviation projects, yet he told acquaintances of a premonition that he would die in one of the small, tinny airplanes that traverse Alaska's wilderness. He also survived a bout with prostate cancer.

The Stevens family, including his second wife, Catherine, and his six children, spent late Monday and much of Tuesday awaiting official word of his fate as rescuers struggled to reach the crash site and assess casualties. After his death was publicly confirmed, the family said in a statement that Stevens "loved Alaska with all his heart" and was "a guiding light" for the state since its formation in 1959.

"Now that light is gone but the warmth and radiance of his life and his work will shine forever in the last frontier," his family said. "His legacy is the 49th star on the American flag."

(See a timeline of other politicians who have died in plane crashes).

The crash prompted condolences from well-wishers across the political spectrum. President Obama said Stevens "devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform."

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who defeated Stevens in a fierce 2008 election fight, called him "a true pioneer" who "helped transform our state in the challenging years after Statehood." Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), whose father was Stevens' contemporary and a longtime political ally, said that "Alaska lost a hero, and I lost a dear friend."

"The thought of losing Ted Stevens, a man who was known to business and community leaders, Native chiefs and everyday Alaskans as 'Uncle Ted,' is too difficult to fathom," Murkowski said. "His entire life was dedicated to public service."

As of Tuesday night, the circumstances of the crash remained unclear. The Alaska Department of Public Safety said initial reports came in about 7 p.m. Monday, when "good Samaritans" were already on the scene to offer medical assistance. Heavy fog, rain and winds delayed official rescue efforts until early Tuesday, officials said.

An internal Federal Aviation Administration report said the airplane was not being directed by air traffic controllers, which is not unusual in rural Alaska. FAA spokeswoman Laura J. Brown said private aircraft are required to file flight plans only if they are navigating with instruments, rather than visually.

Hersman told reporters at a briefing in Dillingham late Tuesday that the group had left a lodge for a salmon fishing camp and crashed about 15 minutes later. Companions became worried after losing contact and sent out planes on a search. That led to the airlift for the doctor and EMTs until a morning rescue effort including the Alaska National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard could begin, officials said.

Hersman said the airplane had been overhauled in 2005 and that the pilot, Theron "Terry" Smith, had more than 29,000 hours of flight time, according to the Associated Press.

The lodge on Lake Aleknagik is owned by GCI, an Anchorage-based cable and telephone provider, which also owned the airplane, according to federal and state officials. Among those killed was Dana L. Tindall, 48, GCI's senior vice president of legal, regulatory and governmental affairs, and her daughter, Corey, 16.

"Dana and her daughter Corey were a big part of our GCI family, and we are devastated by the news of their passing," said Ronald Duncan, the company's CEO and president.

O'Keefe, whose injuries included a broken pelvis, was treated almost like a son by the gruff Stevens, who pushed for his appointment as head of the space agency and other federal posts. O'Keefe served as secretary of the Navy in the early 1990s and headed NASA during the first administration of George W. Bush.

EADS North America's chairman, Ralph D. Crosby Jr., expressed "relief and gratitude" that O'Keefe and his son had survived. Crosby extended "our deepest sympathy to the families of those less fortunate in this terrible accident."

Stevens was long associated with U.S. aviation. He served in the China-Burma-India theater, flying transport planes for the Army Air Forces in support of the renowned "Flying Tigers" fighter squadrons.

In 2000, the Anchorage airport was named for Stevens, who also was a key force behind a federal subsidy program that made air travel possible to more than 50 remote Alaska locations.

Because of Alaska's vastness and rugged terrain, small planes are often used as transportation, including those capable of landing on water, as the DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter is when fitted with floats. The plane, produced from 1951 to 1967, is a single-engine, high-wing propeller plane designated as a short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) utility transport. It can seat 10 or 11 people in its main cabin.

Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth, Ed O'Keefe and Debbi Wilgoren and researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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