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Rescuers reach crash survivors stranded on Knik Glacier

James Halpin

Four pararescuemen struggling against whipping winds and white-out conditions on the Knik Glacier reached five people stranded at 8,500 feet Monday evening, arriving roughly 21 hours after setting out on a 4-mile quest to bring the plane-crash survivors food, water and shelter, according to the Alaska National Guard.

Communications with the five survivors had been interrupted since about 1 p.m. Sunday, when they reported they had crashed on the glacier some 44 miles southeast of Palmer.

Winds gusting to 70 mph, whipping snow and low-hanging clouds again prevented airborne rescue crews Monday from reaching the people, who had been out for a short flightseeing trip and did not have survival gear or heavy clothes, said Maj. Guy Hayes, a spokesman for the Guard.

"The important thing is they now have supplies to be comfortable for the next 48 to 72 hours if they have to stay out there," Hayes said.

The rescue began Sunday afternoon, when the airplane's emergency beacon alerted authorities.

The pilot, 49-year-old Donald Erbey, had taken his father's Piper PA-32 out for a short tour of the glacier with four friends from Texas, said his mother, Beverly Erbey, of Palmer. After getting word Sunday afternoon that the airplane's emergency locator beacon had alerted, another pilot flew into the area and contacted the group by radio, she said.

Her son, who has been a pilot for about seven years, reported that everyone was OK and that the aircraft had crashed into a snowbank, she said.

"He said that he was starting to get into bad weather and so he started making a turn-around to go back when he hit a downdraft," Beverly Erbey said. "Don told them that the plane was not flyable but that it was intact."

Erbey said her husband had recently cleaned out the airplane and not yet put back the emergency kit when the group decided to take it up for a quick trip. The visitors were wearing light jackets but not enough for an extended stay on a glacier, she said.

WEATHER BLOCKS RESCUE

Rescuers tried to reach them by C-130 and HH-60 helicopter Sunday and Monday without success.

"We attempted to drop survival gear from the HC-130 and HH-60, but were unable to get the equipment to the people because of the conditions," said Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Bellamy, rescue coordination center controller. "We're currently still have crews out there circling the area in the HC-130 and HH-60, waiting for a break in the weather, but the conditions haven't improved."

At about 10 p.m. Sunday, the ground team from the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron put in about four miles from the crash site, Hayes said. By mid-afternoon Monday, they were within a mile of the wreck, though no one had communicated with the survivors since the day before, he said.

Then, late in the afternoon, a C-130 circling overhead made contact with the survivors, who reported that they were in good condition and spirits, Hayes said. They told the Guard that the air temperature outside was about 45 degrees, and in the airplane cabin, it was about 50 degrees.

The pararescuemen arrived at the site south of Mount Marcus Baker at about 7 p.m. carrying two sleds loaded with food, water, clothing and enough shelter to last up to three days, said Hayes, who noted that they are members of a unit highly trained in survival skills, mountaineering and glacier travel.

"I imagine it was quite challenging," Hayes said. "It took those guys that long to get there, I don't even want to think what it would take a normal person to do it."

MINOR INJURIES

The team found the survivors in good condition, though one appeared to have a minor facial injury and another had an apparently minor abdominal injury, Hayes said.

They planned to set up camp with the survivors at the crash site and await a break in the weather, though they did pack in enough snowshoes for everyone in case an aerial extraction wasn't possible, he said.

"That's a Plan B that they don't even want to go down," Hayes said. "That would be a total last resort."

The four members of the rescue team that reached the site are Maj. Jesse Peterson, Master Sgt. Al Lankford, Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte and Tech. Sgt. Angel Santana.

Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.


By JAMES HALPIN
jhalpin@adn.com