After the crash: Family tells of 15-hour fight for survival

khopkins@adn.comMay 11, 2013 

The father woke first, ears ringing.

The last thing Donald Evans remembered was shouting to the pilot seated beside him -- "Pull up!" -- before the single-engine plane slammed into a low mountain 37 miles west of McGrath. One look told him that man was now dead.

So was the woman sitting behind Evans, an admired school teacher named Julia Walker who lived in Anvik, the Yukon River village that Evans and his wife, both 32, had been flying to as they began their first year teaching in rural Alaska.

Evans twisted in the six-seat Cessna 207 and looked behind him. The plane, hardly larger than a minivan, had snapped in half on the mountainside. He couldn't see or hear his two children, Mckenzie, 8, and Donnie, 10. His wife Rosemarie slumped in her seat beside Walker. She didn't move.

Evans' mind filled with a single, horrifying thought: "Everybody's gone."

It was Aug. 13, 2011. Raised in upstate New York, the two rookie teachers were still learning about their new home among the roadless hills and tiny riverside towns 350 miles northwest of Anchorage. Like many corners of Bush Alaska, this is a place where gusty landings and blinding whiteouts spook even seasoned pilots.

Evans didn't know it yet but the crash would be among the most deadly of 20 aircraft accidents recorded in the region around McGrath over the past decade.

Until now, the family has never publicly told the story of what happened in the lonely hours after the plane went down.

Donald, still buckled in his seat, said he tried to get his bearings despite the familiar clanging in his head. The same sensation, he said, had followed mortar explosions and IED blasts during the 13 months he'd spent in Iraq. This time he could smell airplane fuel. Some of his teeth were missing. Later, he'd find out that the impact broke his back, legs, feet and jaw.

And this time, there was more at stake than even closest friends and family knew. Rosemarie, now motionless in the middle row, was two months pregnant when she stepped onto the plane.

 

A RUSH OF PANIC

Somewhere outside the crumpled Cessna, in the trees and rain, Evans recalled, he heard his daughter crying.

Mckenzie had been sitting in the back row before the crash. The impact threw her 20 feet from the plane. Now she was soaking wet. It was later determined that her arm was broken and her intestines severed, possibly by the lap-strap seat belt common in small propeller planes.

"I crawled out to her," Evans told family friends in a hospital video interview recorded shortly after the accident.

Together, father and daughter pulled themselves back to the plane where Rosemarie was regaining consciousness. The mother was struggling to breathe, the bodies of the pilot and teacher pressing against her, she said.

Rosemarie instantly understood she had been in a plane crash. She instantly thought of the baby.

"We didn't think we could have children anymore," she told the Daily News in a recent interview. "I was just blessed with another child and now this could be taken away from me so fast."

Her back, feet, ankles and right arm were broken. The only part of her body she could move was her left arm, which she used to reach out the window, feeling behind her.

Ten-year-old Donnie was somewhere back there, alive.

When the fuselage buckled in the middle, Donnie's seat pitched forward, the couple later realized. The boy had rolled partially beneath the plane before the floorboards came to rest on his legs and waist, trapping him.

Now Donald and Rosemarie could hear him screaming.

"There was so much force pressing against him. There was no way I was going to yank him up from the plane," Donald said.

Unaware at that point that Rosemarie was conscious, Donald grabbed an antenna at the rear of the plane and dragged himself to the roof. He crawled to Donnie, letting himself fall from the top of the Cessna, landing beside his son.

The boy might die if he wasn't stabilized and his head elevated, Donald remembers thinking. He noticed a splintered log nearby.

A willow tree must have snapped in the crash, Donald said. "I was able to take that and brace him, to kind of give him support and even him out."

Evans had planned to prune a gang of pine trees away from the school satellite dish back in Anvik and packed a borrowed pair of shears in the plane. He now used the tool to cut away the floorboards to stop them from crushing Donnie.

"Just give daddy a couple minutes," he told his son. "I'm just going to take a break and then I'll finish cutting you out of here."

Rosemarie slipped in and out of consciousness in the middle row, coughing dark blood. "I can't breathe!" she yelled.

Donald's adrenaline had vanished. He forced himself to crawl back to the front and shifted the body of the pilot off her.

"God gave my husband the ability to do what he did because it was beyond him," Rosemarie said.

As the sun went down, she reached back and found her son's hand. Rosemarie began to feel unfamiliar pangs in her stomach. A new kind of pain and a rush of panic.

 

'I KNEW THIS WAS IT'

Donald and Rosemarie Evans, now 33, grew up one county apart in New York state, their parents driving them to the mall to escape farm-town doldrums. They were 15 when they first met at a Poughkeepsie movie theater and started dating.

At 17, Donald joined the U.S. Marines.

They had their first real fight as a married couple when, while living in Maryland, Donald was given a 30-day leave. He wanted to visit somewhere spectacular. Rosemarie had already committed to attend a family reunion at the New Jersey shore.

Donald dropped Rosemarie off at Wildwood, N.J., and caught a flight to Fort Richardson on a military "space available" flight.

"Within the first four or five hours after landing, I knew this was it," Donald said. He rented a car and changed his residency. When he arrived at Rosemarie's family party, it was with Alaska plates on his truck.

After four years in the Marines, Donald enlisted again, this time with the Army. The family hoped to be stationed in Alaska. Donald was sent to Iraq instead, Rosemarie said. After leaving the military in 2007, the couple settled in Wasilla and studied at Alaska Pacific University to be teachers.

"They were very enthusiastic. They wanted to be in rural Alaska," said Karen Ladegard, then superintendent for the Iditarod School District. She hired the pair to job-share a single elementary school teaching position at Anvik's two-classroom Blackwell School.

If the Evans wanted Alaska, they had found it.

An Athabascan village of fewer than 100 people, Anvik is where the southern route of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race meets the Yukon River. Snowmachines outnumber pickup trucks. A head of lettuce sells for $5.50.

The family traveled to the village in June, weeks before school, eager to start their Alaska adventure. Their first flight in a small plane was smooth and sunny.

"As soon as we landed, a big black bear runs across the air strip and stands up," Donald said.

They met Julia Walker, the only other teacher in the village. The kids made fast friends as Donald spent the summer erecting the school's new playground set. At night they opened the gymnasium for students to play basketball.

Donald told a group of boys he'd help them make go-carts in shop class.

"We were really impressed that they wanted to come and be part of the community early like that," said Tami Jerue, Walker's sister-in-law and social services director for the Anvik tribe.

A week before classes were scheduled to begin the teachers flew to the district headquarters in McGrath for a series of meetings.

Rosemarie bought a pregnancy test at the McGrath general store and confirmed her hunch. The couple had assumed they couldn't have any more children because of an auto-immune disease that Donald suffered. The prospect of another baby left them excited and nervous.

Suddenly the decision to share a single teaching job, rather than moving to a district where they could each earn a full salary, made more sense. Don could teach during Rosemarie's maternity leave. Maybe it had all happened for a reason, she told him.

Mckenzie passed the time in McGrath making her first quilt with the help of a local teacher. At the end of the week, the blanket was packed in the cramped Cessna along with groceries and school supplies as the family waited for a break in the weather.

Pilot Ernie Chase, 66, decided they had an opening shortly after 7 p.m. Chase grew up in Anvik and had flown the route countless times. Just before takeoff Donald noticed an emergency locator beacon clipped to the pilot's sun visor.

He recognized the brand. He and Donnie took a similar gadget on rafting trips along the Little Susitna River. It sends a distress signal with the user's whereabouts in an emergency.

"That's good to know," Donald remembers thinking.

 

MOUNTAINSIDE IN THE WINDSHIELD

One in three fatal commuter plane/air taxi accidents in the United States happens in Alaska, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. While the number of deadly accidents in the state dropped by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2009, the rate of commuter flight crashes remains three times the national average.

As the plane prepared to leave McGrath, Donald and Rosemarie recalled later, they felt the split-second whirl of second thoughts and silent unease familiar to all village fliers. Would the weather hold? Would this be the flight where something went wrong?

"I can remember sitting there and just looking outside and just having that weird feeling," Donald said.

Pregnant Rosemarie just felt sick, her stomach queasy as they lifted off. The Kuskokwim disappeared hundreds and then thousands of feet below. Donald watched for moose and bears. The kids sat with books.

There was hardly any turbulence, Rosemarie said. She threw up anyway.

Julia Walker, belted beside her, helped Rosemarie clean up and retreated into her iPod. The teacher was still wearing her headphones when the plane passed a small Iditarod trail checkpoint popular among mushers for homemade pies and a bottomless burger grill.

"Hey, that's Takotna," Walker said over the holler of the engine.

The National Weather Service recorded a temperature of 53 degrees that night, hazy and foggy, with a light wind.

Within minutes, the plane was encased in clouds.

"This is pretty bad," Donald remembered the pilot saying. All he could see was white.

Donald thought of the family's cocker spaniel and Labrador waiting in Anvik. He swiveled in his seat, disappointed. "Sorry babe. We're probably going to turn around."

Rosemarie leaned back. The weather had been making her nervous. "No big deal," she said.

Chase dipped the plane close to the ground, looking for clearer sky. The Cessna climbed, then dipped again, according to the Transportation Safety Board report.

Then the pilot must have spotted something to his left, Donald said.

The plane banked hard to the right. The clouds broke just in time for Donald to see the mountainside fill the windshield.

"There was so many thoughts that went through my head so quickly," he told the Portland (Maine) Press Herald in a recent interview. "I remember saying, 'Please God, protect my family.' "

 

LONG NIGHT

Within 20 minutes of the crash, the four family members had all regained consciousness, Rosemarie said.

Hypothermia was Donald's first fear. He removed Mckenzie's soaked clothing and wrapped her in the pink-and-yellow quilt she had made just days before. He added another layer using cardboard from boxes and black plastic garbage bags.

Less than an hour had passed since the accident. Rosemarie could hear birds chirping, she said. It was still light out but growing colder when Donald remembered the beacon.

He crawled to the front of the plane and tried to make radio contact, to call for help.

The cockpit lights flickered. No one answered. Donald pressed the button on the "SPOT" beacon again and again.

The device sent a satellite message to Chase's family in Wasilla at 8:30 p.m., according to the preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report on the crash.

The pilot's airline, Aniak-based Inland Aviation Services, launched planes to search Chase's flight path. Bad weather cut short the effort, safety investigators wrote. Pilots in other small planes in the area, meanwhile, told the Alaska Air National Guard they heard a distress signal from an emergency locator transmitter.

Donald could hear airplanes above the clouds but never saw any lights. The family knew they were only a 20-minute flight from McGrath. Surely they would hear the chop of a rescue helicopter soon.

The combination of wind and rain left Donald as cold as he had ever felt, he told the Press Herald. Sometime before nightfall he heard wolves howling in the fog.

"Everybody started screaming," Donald said. "I was just begging everybody to stop screaming. Just, 'please.' "

The sun went down at about 10:45 p.m., according to Weather Service records. The wolves never appeared. Neither did the helicopter.

 

'CLOSE YOUR EYES AND RELAX'

Donald angled the monitor of a broken school district laptop at the sky, trying to reflect a flash of light through the clouds.

Rosemarie, still trapped in her seat, gripped Donnie's hand as Donald held Mckenzie. Every few seconds, he yelled to his family and tried to get them to yell back.

Falling asleep might kill them, Donald feared, something he had learned while in Iraq. Rosemarie, still unable to move, drifted in and out of consciousness.

To stay awake, they sang the words to a children's poem Donald and Rosemarie read to Donnie when he was a baby:

These little hands are held in prayer. To thank you God for being there. These little hearts speak to you.

"This went on for a good part of at least 12 hours," Donald said.

Rosemarie worried she might be miscarrying. She prayed in silence, for Ernie Chase and Julie Walker and her family. "For the lives that God took," she said, "and the lives that were still on the plane and the life of my unborn child."

An Air National Guard HC-130 left Anchorage at 1:25 a.m., tracking the emergency locator signal. It flew over the crash site about 3 a.m., said Guard spokeswoman Kalei Rupp. But the cloud cover remained. Rescuers couldn't see the wreckage and after two hours returned to Anchorage to refuel.

The family could hear the plane circling. Then silence.

The feeling of helplessness was torment, Rosemarie said. "As a mother, your children need you, but literally there's nothing you can do."

At 9 a.m., a National Guard HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter left Anchorage, returning to the crash site. The refueled HC-130 followed minutes later.

But the Evans family didn't know help was on the way. Donald was afraid the search had gone on so long it would shift from a rescue mission to a recovery effort.

"We didn't have much longer," he said.

He found a bag of clementine oranges the family had purchased in McGrath -- fresh fruit is an expensive luxury in many villages -- and tossed one to each family member.

"He said, 'Here guys, this will bring a little sunshine into our lives right now,' " Rosemarie said.

It was a last meal. After they ate, Donald told the family they could finally go to sleep.

"He said, 'OK. Everyone just close your eyes and relax,' " Rosemarie said. "I guess he just wanted us to be at peace at that point."

Less than five minutes later they heard the helicopter, the whoosh of the blades sailing dry grass across the wreckage.

'WE'RE GOING TO HELP YOU'

Pararescuemen, known in the Alaska Air National Guard as "Guardian Angels," hit the ground at 11:05 a.m. after a break in the clouds, Rupp said.

Two rescuers dropped from the helicopter, which was unable to land in the sloping, wooded crash site. Another three jumped from the HC-130 to a nearby field.

"We're here. We're going to help you," the rescuers said as they studied the crash site. Rosemarie remembers saying thank you.

"My wife's pregnant, take her first," Donald told them.

The Evans family had been trapped in the plane for more than 15 hours when guardsmen hoisted Rosemarie to the Pavehawk in a long basket. She was flown to McGrath where she waited for the helicopter to pick up the rest of the family. They eventually flew together to Anchorage, she said.

At the hospital, the list of injuries kept getting longer. Surgeons removed Mckenzie's appendix and re-attached her intestines. They cut Donnie from ear to ear to pull a section of his skull back in place. Rosemarie and Donald spent months in wheelchairs mending broken backs.

News reports at the time reported the family was in fair to serious condition. Few people knew how badly they were hurt, or that one life was still at risk.

Doctors tried to give Rosemarie drugs that would not pass through the umbilical cord to her baby, she said. She was told many times the child might not make it.

As the weeks passed the warnings stopped. The baby appeared healthy in pre-natal visits, and Rosemarie gave birth -- rods and screws still lodged in her back -- exactly seven months after the crash. One of the emergency room nurses from the day of their rescue helped deliver the baby, she said.

The couple named the girl Willow for the tree branch that Donald used to save his son. They named her Julia, for the teacher who lost her life in the crash. And they named her Grace, Rosemarie said, "because it's by the grace of God that we're all here."

Willow Julia Grace Evans celebrated her first birthday in March. She's already walking.

 

The Evans family's description of the plane crash was obtained from a recording made shortly after the accident by Eileen Olson of Anchorage, a family friend, and from phone interviews with the Daily News from Maine, where the family now lives.

Read the epilogue: A second chance 

 

 

 


  Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 

 

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