Alaska plane crash a painful reminder for families of Boggs and Begich

By Jason Horowitz
Sunday, August 15, 2010

ANCHORAGE -- First of two parts. Part 2 here.

On a recent summer afternoon, Alaskan and American flags fluttered together above the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, a low-slung gray building on the banks of Portage Lake. Inside, tourists perused a chart on sockeye salmon and maps of the surrounding Chugach Mountains. Few people paid any attention to a black-and-white memorial to the center's namesakes.

"On October 16, 1972, United States House of Representatives Majority Leader Thomas Hale Boggs and United States Representative Nicholas J. Begich boarded an airplane in Anchorage en route to Juneau," read a few short paragraphs alongside photos of the congressmen. "The aircraft disappeared amidst turbulent conditions, and no trace of the men or the airplane was found."

A vanishing that seared the political establishment in Washington and caused a 40-year shift in Alaska's balance of power has itself largely faded from memory. On Monday night, the nation received an eerie reminder when another small-engine plane went down in southwestern Alaska near Aleknagik Lake, killing former senator Ted Stevens (R), whose first wife died in a 1978 crash that he survived. For the Boggs and Begich families, the Stevens tragedy is something more than a data point to demonstrate that Alaska is a state plagued by plane crashes. It is yet another haunting echo of a mystery that has defined and bound two of the nation's most politically prominent, and different, clans for decades.

"It brings back a lot of memories and connections," said one of Nicolas Begich's sons, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who ousted Stevens from the Senate in 2008. Begich said he had waited for news about the crash as he prepared to fly from Anchorage to Kotzebue and later placed a condolence call to the Stevens household, just as Stevens had called Begich's mother 38 years ago.

"He lost his wife in a plane crash, and I lost my father," Begich said. "You think about all those pieces in the equation."

In the hours after his father's plane went missing a generation ago, Tommy Boggs, the son of Hale and Lindy Boggs and now one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, also received a call from Stevens, then Alaska's new senator. "He said he knew the pilot and that there was nothing to be concerned about," recalled Boggs, who himself was rushed back to Washington last month after suffering heart problems on an Alaskan cruise with his grandchildren. "He was upbeat."

The mothers, brothers and sisters of the Boggs and Begich families have all dealt differently with the losses of their husbands and fathers, and with Alaska's looming hold over their family's fate.

(Photos: Political figures who died in plane crashes)

"All of us kids in one way or another were really driven by the early death of my dad," said Tom Begich, one of the six children in a family that has long harbored doubts about the government's response to the disappearance of their father's plane. He added that his younger brother Mark's election to the Senate "closes the circle and makes things whole."

The Boggs family has been both drawn and repelled from the state that claimed their patriarch.

"A lot of my family has this connection to it," said Cokie Roberts, the political correspondent and Tommy Boggs's younger sister. "And I have this sense that it is the place that took my father. I don't want to go there."

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