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The Waiting: Survivors of the Ted Stevens plane crash in Alaska wondered if help would reach them in time
This map was covered with hundreds of colored pins, and Sean O'Keefe, then a young aide to the state's iconic U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, paused almost 30 years ago to ask his Air National Guard escort why.
"What does this represent to us?" he said.
Every pin, he was told, was a plane crash.
And the different colors?
"Well, the green one says we found them and we were able to locate survivors. The red ones, you can kinda use your own imagination as to what that means."
But it was the memory of the pins that were neither red nor green that returned to haunt O'Keefe, as he lay trapped in the wreckage on the isolated mountainside in the rain.
Those other pins, and there were lots, were crashes that never had been found. Each pin marked a rough guess of where the plane went down. Despite what are likely the most sophisticated and experienced search-and-rescue teams on the planet, the vast Alaskan wilderness swallows planes whole. Mountains are covered with thick forests of alder and brush. Lakes, rivers and tributaries give rise to superlatives -- the most salmon, the best game. It is home to places so rugged and unspoiled they draw outdoorsmen from all over the world. But that beauty comes with conflict. It's always man vs. nature.
There are a dozen ways Alaska can kill you, say those who fly or fish or hunt the land. There are driving rains, frigid cold, and extreme cycles of day and night. Clouds roll in and drop so low it's as though they're sitting on top of the rivers. In a place inaccessible by roads, plane travel is a routine part of life, and the crashes are always personal. They are about somebody you know, somebody you know of, or you yourself. It forges a kind of promise in the community; a tacit add-on to the social contract that says if you go missing, I will look for you, because one day you may have to do the same for me.
The Aug. 9 "Stevens crash," as it would come to be known, was the 53rd time a plane had gone down this year. Twelve days later, a plane with four people went down in the same region. The search went on for 15 days and covered 60,100 air miles without finding anybody.
Thirty-eight years earlier, a plane carrying House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and U.S. Rep. Nicholas J. Begich disappeared on a flight from Anchorage to Juneau. The fruitless search lasted 39 days. In the decades since, tens of thousands of flights have followed that same route without ever catching sight of the missing airplane.
The red pins, the green pins, the pins of the never-found -- and then there was one last type: the pins of those who were found days or weeks or months too late, with death coming slowly to those who survived the crash but not the unforgiving elements.
As the shock wore off and his breathing grew labored, O'Keefe lay in the wreckage with his dead and badly injured friends, thinking the odds were against them.