Rain, wind and fog stymie NTSB's investigation of plane crash in Alaska

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said it's a tragically sad day for the state after learning that Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash. She said Alaska has lost one of the greatest leaders that the state will ever see.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

As federal investigators made their way through rain, wind and fog on Wednesday to the wilderness hillside where Alaska's iconic political figure died on Monday, they already knew that the holy grail of most plane crash investigations was absent.

There was no tell-all black box in the wreckage of the 53-year-old aircraft that went down while ferrying a fishing party that included former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R), ending his life and that of four others and injuring four more passengers.

"We've got a lot of experience investigating general aviation accidents where we don't have a black-box recorder," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who flew to Alaska on Tuesday to lead the investigation. The weather finally subsided enough late Wednesday that the team made it to the crash site.

Even as they waited for a weather window to reach the rugged site, investigators readied to interview the hospitalized survivors, all of whom reside in the Washington area.

"We are fortunate that we have four survivors, so they're going to be able to give us the key information, not only on the crash itself, but on the path of the flight and the conditions," Hersman said. "Their medical condition and their fatigue is going to dictate when they do that."

The four -- former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, 54, and his son, Kevin, of Ashburn; William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13, of Germantown; and Jim Morhard, 53, of Arlington -- survived a hellish night awaiting rescue after the plane crashed into a remote hillside in the rain as the party was returning from a salmon-fishing trip.

Alerted that the group had not returned to their lodge by dinnertime, search teams quickly located the downed plane but the closest safe place to land a helicopter was almost a quarter-mile away. They made their way from there to the plane through thick underbrush, mud and sliding rocks, arriving about three hours after the crash to find all but one passenger still buckled in their seats, five of them dead.

Through the night, the rescue workers used survival blankets and all other available means to keep the living warm and protect them from the driving rain until they could be evacuated the following morning.

"The conditions were very treacherous," Hersman said. "It was a very difficult evening. A long night."

At the site, investigators discovered the plane lying partially on its side, with a separation in the fuselage behind the cockpit. They estimated the plane skidded about 100 feet after landing.

The elder O'Keefe was listed in critical condition in Anchorage's Providence Hospital on Wednesday, according to Guy Hicks, the spokesman for EADS North America, which O'Keefe heads. O'Keefe's son was in "guarded condition," said Hicks, who added that other members of the O'Keefe family had arrived in Anchorage.

A family spokesman issued a statement that said, "As for Sean and Kevin, their injuries do not appear to be life-threatening and we are confident they will have a full recovery."

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