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Survivors recall moments leading up to Alaska plane crash

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2010; A14

The first accounts from survivors of Monday's Alaska plane crash that killed former U.S. senator Ted Stevens and four others emerged Friday with one telling investigators that the plane "was flying along" normally, and then "just stopped flying," slamming nosefirst into a remote hillside.

Interviews with the two of the four hospitalized surviving passengers -- all residents of the Washington area -- provide details of an Alaska wilderness fishing trip that went badly wrong when they set out from a lodge to fish for silver salmon at a remote camp northwest of Dillingham.

Interviews with the pair were related by Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. She did not give the names of those interviewed and said her investigators were ready to talk to the others "whenever they are up to it."

Hersman said the group, former aides and associates of the senator who represented Alaska for 40 years, and their children delayed their departure from the hunting lodge from morning until midafternoon because the region was socked in by rain, fog and low cloud cover. Over lunch, and after the pilot checked weather reports, she said they decided to fly to the camp near where the salmon were making their annual run.

One of the two survivors interviewed told investigators that he fell asleep in the right front seat of the 1957 DeHavilland floatplane shortly after takeoff and woke only minutes before it crashed.

After the plane crashed into a rugged hillside, he said survivors found no radio to summon help.

After several hours calls between the lodge and fishing camp established the plane was missing. When the first rescuers reached the scene all they could do was comfort the living overnight until they could be evacuated the following morning.

Alaska's state medical examiner said yesterday that the five who were killed appeared to die on impact.

Survivors were being treated in Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, which said the condition of former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, 54, the most seriously injured passenger, had been upgraded from critical to serious. A family spokesman said his son Kevin had improved to fair condition.

The hospital said Jim Morhard, 53, of Arlington remained in fair condition and William Phillips Jr., 13, of Germantown, whose father died in the crash, remained in good condition.

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