Weather slows investigation of Stevens plane crash in Alaska

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010; A04

The effort to determine the cause of a plane crash that killed former Alaska senator Ted Stevens and four others was slowed Thursday by bad weather that shrouded the remote crash site and by the extent of the injuries to those who survived it.

"We are working to interview the survivors now," said Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "We've got folks at the hospital trying to make contact with them. We understand why they can't talk."

The four survivors, all from the Washington area, remained hospitalized Thursday in Anchorage's Providence Hospital. Hersman did not provide details of their emotional or physical states but said members of her team were awaiting clearance from doctors to begin interviews.

As investigators gathered information from other sources, they pieced together a new timeline of Monday's fatal hillside crash of the 53-year-old DeHavilland floatplane.

Initial reports had suggested the plane went down while returning to a lodge after a day of salmon fishing. Now investigators think it crashed in the early afternoon while bound from the lodge to a remote fishing camp about 50 miles away.

"We believe the crash occurred 15 to 20 minutes after takeoff from the lodge," Hersman said.

She said initial indications were that the ruby-red plane was pointed in the direction of the camp when it slammed into a hillside, skidded about 100 feet uphill and came to rest on its left side. The cockpit apparently snapped from the fuselage, but the body of the plane was largely intact and the passengers remained inside. There was no fire, she said.

"The timelines are not tight now," Hersman said. "That could be the challenge with people's memories."

Small planes that are the common conveyance in Alaska's vast wilderness are not tracked by air traffic controllers or required to file flight plans as they skip from one remote location to another, often landing on unmanned grass runways and lakes and rivers. Unlike larger commercial airliners, they aren't required to carry black-box flight recorders to tell the tale if something goes wrong.

In this case, where the physical evidence might not fully reveal what went wrong, and given that the pilot died in the crash, establishing a solid timeline based on interviews might help determine the cause.

One potential culprit is Alaska's volatile summer weather, which has socked in the rugged crash scene for all but a few hours since Monday. Knowing just when the plane crashed will allow investigators to match conditions to the moment of impact. The nearest weather station was about 20 miles away in Dillingham, and Hersman said investigators will interview pilots of other planes who were closer to the site at the time of the crash.

The timeline also plays a factor in determining how long the passengers were trapped before the first help -- a doctor-led team that struggled through the underbrush for 40 minutes -- arrived at the crash scene.

It is unclear whether any of those who died -- Stevens, 86; Washington lobbyist William "Bill" Phillips Sr., 56; pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with the company that owned the plane; and her daughter, Corey Tindall, 16 -- survived the initial impact.

If the crash occurred before 2:30 p.m. rather than in early evening, however, the survivors endured a longer wait for help than first thought. Even after the initial rescue team arrived, the survivors could not be airlifted out until the following morning.

Hersman said the lodge first learned the plane never made it to the fishing camp when lodge staff members contacted the camp to determine whether the group would return in time for dinner. They then called flight service personnel at the Dillingham airport to see whether they had word of the plane, which they did not. The lodge staff called the airport again minutes later to request a search-and-rescue effort.

It was shortly before 8 p.m. when a pilot radioed in that the wreckage had been spotted.

Hersman said two NTSB investigators reached the crash site during a brief break in the weather Wednesday and completed their on-site inspection, but renewed bad weather postponed the next step, bringing in a helicopter capable of lifting the wreckage back to Dillingham for more detailed scrutiny.

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