Alaska State Troopers recovered the body of a New Mexico tourist strapped inside a wrecked flight-seeing plane late Wednesday as it sat precariously on a mountainside in Southeast Alaska, where it crashed the night before.
Santa Fe resident Thomas Rising, 66, died Tuesday when the single-engine de Havilland Beaver hit a mountain near LeConte Bay east of Petersburg, according to troopers. A Coast Guard helicopter crew rescued six survivors, including one passenger with a broken back and one with a broken leg, the Coast Guard said.
Rising was a research and design engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to his professional profile online at LinkedIn.com. A spokesman for the nuclear lab said a Thomas L. Rising was a Los Alamos employee, but he could not confirm it was the same man killed in the crash. Public records databases show no other Thomas Rising in New Mexico.
The floatplane and Rising's body remained at the crash site Wednesday at an elevation of about 1,000 feet, near Thunder Mountain, troopers said. Thunder Mountain is about 11 miles due east of Petersburg.
The pilot of the Petersburg-based Pacific Wings plane suffered minor injuries, the flight-seeing company's owner told The Associated Press. The five other passengers were members of the same family, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash. They were not identified.
All six had been on a cruise aboard the Lindblad Sea Bird, a high-end, low-passenger adventure ship on a voyage affiliated with National Geographic.
Pacific Wings reported the plane missing just before 4 p.m. Tuesday, troopers said. The small flight company had lost contact with its floatplane, and an emergency locator transmitter alerted the U.S. Coast Guard, according to the Coast Guard.
A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter flew from Sitka to the crash site and its crew homed in on the transmitter signal, said Petty Officer Grant DeVuyst, a Coast Guard spokesman. Sunrise Aviation and Temsco Helicopters aided in the search, troopers said. Three private helicopters arrived at the emergency beacon's position just before the Jayhawk got there about 6:50 p.m., DeVuyst said.
The Jayhawk crew spotted a person near the wrecked plane, DeVuyst said.
"They saw one of the survivors waving arms at them, and that's how they found everyone," he said.
The helicopter lowered a rescuer, and the crew hoisted the injured passengers aboard the Jayhawk, one by one, DeVuyst said. They had to make two trips to Petersburg to deliver the six survivors, he said.
The crew decided it was too risky to get the dead man unstrapped and out of the plane, DeVuyst said.
"The terrain is a little extreme there, between the trees, if you have to hoist someone from a 45-degree slope," he said. "And the light was fading as well at that point."
Weather at the time was light wind and rain and a quarter-mile to a half-mile of visibility, "depending on the clouds moving through the valley," DeVuyst said. The rescue was completed about 10:20 p.m., he said.
By Wednesday, mountaineers with Juneau Mountain Rescue had made it to Petersburg and were planning to fly to the plane with troopers and an aircraft accident investigator in a Coast Guard helicopter, said Clint Johnson, head of the National Transportation Safety Board's Alaska office. The investigator would examine the wreckage and the crash site, Johnson said.
"This airplane came to rest in very steep and mountainous terrain, and it was reported to us as very unstable, so that's why the Juneau mountain rescue folks are there," Johnson said.
Troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday that troopers had retrieved Rising's body and taken it to Petersburg. Details of the recovery were not available late Wednesday. Peters had said earlier that the troopers were worried about the plane wreckage falling off a cliff.
Johnson said there were no early indications as to what caused the crash. The investigator would be looking into many aspects of the accident, including weather conditions in the area Tuesday and any mechanical issues with the plane, Johnson said.
"At the top of the priority list is talking to the pilot, which may be accomplished tonight or tomorrow morning," Johnson said Wednesday.
The 31-cabin cruise ship Sea Bird sailed from Juneau on Sunday and arrived in Petersburg Tuesday, according to Patty Disken-Cahill, a spokeswoman for Lindblad Expeditions, which partners with National Geographic on the cruises.
"We are deeply saddened by this tragedy. Our thoughts are with the people involved in this accident and their families," Disken-Cahill said in a written statement.
Not counting the cost of a shore excursion, the eight-day cruise on the Sea Bird runs between $5,990 and $11,010, depending on what level of accommodations a passenger purchases, Disken- Cahill said.
In Petersburg, Pacific Wings is the only airline offering flight-seeing services for Lindblad-National Geographic cruise passengers, Disken-Cahill said in an email.
"We have an arrangement with Pacific Wings to provide optional flight-seeing excursions," Disken-Cahill said. "They are offered to guests while onboard as an optional excursion while the shipped is docked in Petersburg.
"We clearly have concerns after an accident like this and will be looking to the NTSB investigation as to the cause of this tragic accident."
Contact Casey Grove at (907) 257-4589 or firstname.lastname@example.org
By CASEY GROVE