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

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010; A05

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."

William "Bill" Phillips Sr., 56, a prominent Washington lobbyist and father of the injured boy, died in the crash. The Phillips family also thanked people in a written statement, praising Phillips as "a devoted husband and father" and "a man of deep faith who lived for his family, was kind, generous and believed in the goodness of every individual."

No one answered the door at Morhard's Arlington home.

His sister-in-law, Constance Morhard, said from her home in Culpeper that she was "worried sick about his condition."

"Surviving the plane crash is not enough," she said. "I need to know if he's okay."

Constance Morhard described her brother-in-law as an avid outdoorsman who spent his summers fishing and camping at a family cottage in Heathsville, near the mouth of the Potomac River.

"I'm sitting here like the rest of us hoping and praying that we'll get some good news very shortly," she said.

Hersman said it was too early to tell whether the plane had engine trouble.

"We've got to get our eyes on the aircraft to see what went wrong," she said.

Lacking the information from a black-box flight recorder, the NTSB team will examine what remains of the 1957 DeHavilland floatplane for hints of a mechanical failure or structural fracture that might have caused it to cut a 300-foot furrow in a hillside about 17 miles northwest of the town of Dillingham.

The investigators also will consider whether weather was a factor. Rain, fog and gusting winds early Wednesday grounded helicopters that were to ferry the first NTSB team members in from Dillingham. Weather records from Monday evening show nothing so severe when the plane went down, but plenty of misting rain and low cloud cover.

Small-plane crashes are a fact of life in Alaska, where flying or walking often are the only options for reaching remote wilderness areas. Beset with low cloud cover and rolling terrain, bush pilots often fly at far lower altitudes than in other states as they hop from place to place delivering goods and passengers.

Forty-two plane crashes were recorded in Alaska this year before Monday's, killing seven people. By contrast, California, with 50 times Alaska's population, has had 97. South Dakota, with a population slightly larger than Alaska's 698,000, has had just four.

"Unfortunately, it's a part of Alaska," said Megan Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Police. "It's how we get around most of the state."

Meanwhile, the bodies of the former senator and those of the four other victims were flown to Anchorage. In addition to Phillips and Stevens, 86, the dead included three other Alaskans: pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with the company that owned the plane; and her daughter, Corey Tindall, 16. Flags in the state were lowered to half-staff, where they will remain through Stevens's funeral, which had yet to be scheduled.

Staff writers N.C. Aizenman, Dan Eggen, Dana Hedgpeth, Kafia A. Hosh, Ovetta Wiggins and researchers Meg Smith and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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