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In GCI crash, grassroots search and rescue led to 'horrible' crash scene

Jill Burke,Joshua Saul,Patti Epler,Craig Medred

DILLINGHAM -- Neither of the men who first went looking for a single-engine Otter missing from the Agulowak Lodge north of here on Monday expected to find the turbo-powered floatplane bent and broken in a patch of alders in the Muklung Hills with five dead. Even though the plane was late returning to the fishing lodge and had never shown up at its scheduled afternoon fishing stop, there was no panic when Bob Himschoot, an employee of lodge owner GCI Inc., got a call suggesting a search was in order.

Otter pilot Terry Smith, 62, of Eagle River was a hugely experienced veteran of Alaska's skies. He'd grown up flying in the far north. He was former chief pilot for Alaska Airlines in the 49th state. He had logged 29,000 hours -- a lifetime -- in the pilot's seat. And it wasn't like he was likely to be doing anything risky at the controls with revered former Sen. Ted Stevens, former chief of NASA Sean O'Keefe, and one of lodge owner GCI's most important executives, Dana Tindall, among his passengers.

So Himschoot called friend Tom Tucker at Tucker Aviation and asked him if they could take his helicopter up to look for the plane. Tucker was getting ready to sit down to supper but said he'd be happy to fly. Outside his hangar the weather was wet, windy and foggy, but that's normal in Southwest Alaska, the summer home of commercial fishermen like former "First Dude" Todd Palin.

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Tucker, like Himschoot, expected that at worst they'd find GCI's missing Otter parked on a lake somewhere with a mechanical problem, the passengers likely nearby fishing for the salmon and rainbow trout that fill the many lakes and rivers in and around 1.6-million-acre Wood Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the nation.

"It was just a couple of friends going to look for a couple of friends," Tucker said.

Neither could guess that Stevens, Smith, Tindall and two others were already dead.

Normal operating procedure

Small single-engine airplanes are the town cars of the comfortable fishing lodges that dot Southwest Alaska. The planes run anglers here, there and everywhere in the pursuit of salmon and rainbow trout. Daily fight schedules tend to be loose and flexible.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman said Wednesday back in Anchorage that the Otter in question appears to have left the Agulowak Lodge at about 2 p.m. Monday but never reached a nearby fish camp where the passengers were to try for silver salmon.

At about 6:30 p.m., she said, the lodge called the Federal Aviation Administration's flight service station to ask if Smith had radioed in. FAA said no and asked if GCI wanted to initiate a search and rescue operation. Lodge managers at that point declined.

About 15 minutes later, however, Hersman said, they called back and asked for the search. At 7:16 p.m. a report went out to local pilots to be on the alert for a missing aircraft. A description of the Otter was provided. Four minutes later, a pair of pilots in the area -- John Bouker and Eric Shade -- radioed they were already in the air on flights elsewhere but would start searching.

One of them would quickly change Tucker's journey from a search flight to a mission of mercy. Tucker and Himschoot were in the helicopter whoop-whooping north when Bouker radioed that he had spotted a downed plane.

How the plane was found

Bouker had earlier dropped some passengers in the village of Manoktok, heard a call on the radio that the FAA was reporting a plane missing, and decided to backtrack its route. He radioed another pilot, Shade, who was in the area doing the same. They agreed to search opposite sides of the Muklung Hills.

ntsb-crashmapBouker took the west side. It didn't take him long to find the wreckage. "It looked like a crashed airplane," he said. "The weather was just touching the wreckage when I found it."

He didn't get too see a whole lot more. "The weather wasn't good," he added. "I had to concentrate on what I was doing."

One of the things he was doing was radioing GPS coordinates to Tucker in his helicopter. With that aide, Tucker quickly located the missing Otter in the brush next to a big patch of rock on the north slope of a mountain less than 20 miles from his hangar back along the airstrip here.

The fuselage of the downed plane appeared largely intact. The wings were bent back, an indication of a crash at some speed, but they were still attached to the fuselage. It was impossible to tell if anyone was alive in the wreckage, but given the looks of the airplane Tucker and Himschoot held out hope. Tucker started looking for a place to land.

On the ground with Stevens, others dead

The terrain around the crash site was steep, rugged and brushy. Tucker had a hard time finding someplace to put the helicopter down. He finally ended up landing in the mountains nearly a half mile above the wreckage and dropping Himschoot off. It seemed the only option. "I landed the only place we could really land," Tucker said. He did not know then if anyone was alive in the wreckage, but he knew more help would be needed.


As Himschoot started for the wreckage, Tucker lifted off and headed back to Dillingham to get more help. The pilot was in the air as Himschoot fought through the brush to get to the plane. He encountered everything that makes the uninitiated presume the Alaska backcountry impenetrable. Alder and willow brush grabbed at his legs and smacked him in the face. He had to clamber over rocks and splash through streams. He slipped on moss rock rubble. Covering the half mile took more than 20 minutes.

Tucker was radioing for more help as Himschoot worked toward the airplane. An Anchorage physician, reportedly the wife of GCI chief executive Ron Duncan, a friend of Stevens, was waiting when Tucker touched down back to the airport. He loaded her and returned to the crash scene to meet Himschoot.

"Bob came back and he looked like he'd been beat up," Tucker said. But Himschoot had good news, too. There were people alive in the wreckage. Tucker dropped off the doctor and went back to get more help. Emergency medical technicians were now waiting at the airport. Tucker picked them up and delivered them to the scene. By then a full scale rescue was gearing up. Another helicopter pilot, Sam Egli of King Salmon's Egli Air Haul, was in the air with two volunteer firefighters, and the authorities had been notified of a crash with injured victims needing help.

On the last flight back to the crash scene, Tucker left his helicopter and went to see what he could do to help. He found himself slipping on huge boulders covered in slick, wet moss. "I'm not a geologist, but it's nasty stuff," Tucker said. At the crash site, the scene was bad. Everything in front of the plane's forward bulkhead had been torn away. The passengers, though, remained inside the fuselage. They were dressed in their fishing gear. Some were dead. Rescuers placed blankets on the living to try to keep them warm. Officials with the National Transportation Board would later note the waders the passengers wore to go fishing probably helped protect them from the rain and cold, staving off hypothermia.

"I was frustrated," Tucker said. "It was so horrible. There's so little you can do in a situation like that." He could see a path where the plane tore through the 15-foot-tall alder bushes after it crashed at such a high speed it slid up the steep side of the mountain slope.

The crash

Hersman said that NTSB investigators were only beginning to piece together what happened after a preliminary examination of the wreckage. Bad weather had kept them away from the scene until about 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Among the initial conclusions of investigators once they got into the Muklung Hills was that the plane had gone in on its left side and then plowed up slope for about 150 feet before coming to a stop. The fuselage was separated at the instrument panel, and the left wing was folded back at about a 45-degree angle and slightly intruded into the cabin. The plane ripped through scrub brush 8 to 10 feet high when it hit, which might have helped to cushion the impact.

There was no emergency signal sent out from the airplane after the crash.

"We still have a lot of work to do," Hersman said.

Investigators are hoping to interview survivors, but have been unable to do so because of the severity of their injuries. O'Keefe remains in critical condition at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and businessman Jim Morhard is listed in serious condition. Two teenagers who survived the crash, O'Keefe's son Kevin and William Phillips Jr. are doing better. William is the son of Bill Phillips, 56, who died in the crash along with his former boss Stevens, 86; Tindall, 48; her 16-year-old daughter Corey; and Smith.

Saving the survivors

As Tucker and Egli were heading back in their helicopters, having dropped the doctor and EMTs at the crash site, the Alaska Air National Guard in Anchorage was ordering its combat-trained medics west in a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter specially outfitted for search and rescue missions. Aboard the aircraft were members of the 210th Rescue Squadron who'd thought themselves headed for the Knik Glacier.

There was another airplane down there with five people aboard. But parajumpers earlier dropped low on the glacier had fought their way up the mountain through a blizzard to provide those people with food and shelter. With everyone there safe and cared for, if not exactly comfortable, the National Guard diverted the backup Pave Hawk to the Muklung Hills.

One of those aboard was Sr. Mstr. Sgt. Jonathan Davis. Among the best-trained rescue personnel in the world, Davis and his colleagues had hoped to be on the scene Monday night, but by the time they arrived here around midnight the weather had deteriorated so badly not even the Pave Hawk could safely fly. The crew decided to get a few hours of rest and try at first light.


They were finally over the wrecked Otter between 6:30 and 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, but the crash site was hidden in clouds and the helicopter couldn't land. Pararescuers had to drop in 75 to 100 yards downslope from the location and climb up to the plane.

The volunteer rescuers who'd spent the night with the injured at the site had themselves been pounded by the elements. Although they had brought medical equipment with them, they left it at the landing site when they scrambled down to the wreckage. The weather then worsened so badly it pinned everyone down at the crash site. Rescuers were left in a position from which there was little they could do to help but to keep people warm, provide emotional support and hang on for the start of a new day.

When Davis arrived, he said, one of the teenage boys was outside the plane -- disoriented, sleepy and in pain. He had a broken ankle. The site smelled strongly of aviation fuel. Exhausted and in pain, none of the survivors, who were lying in different areas, were talking much. Most were still in the plane due to fears that trying to move them could have been more detrimental than keeping them warm and as comfortable as possible inside the wreckage.

Luckily, Davis said, it appeared everyone who'd survived the crash had been safely nursed through the night. All of the survivors were conscious when rescuers got to them, he added, although badly beaten up. Injuries included a broken ankle, a compound fracture to a lower leg, a possible broken hip, a possible broken pelvis and potential spinal injuries, Davis said.

He and his colleagues set about stabilizing the injured and, aided by a Coast Guard crew that had arrived on scene, figuring out how to stage the evacuation. Rescuers struggled to get the injured immobilized on spine boards. They had to cut open the side of the Otter's fuselage to extricate them, then load them in a stokes littler and pack each 20 to 40 yards downhill to be hoisted into a helicopter. The first two patients went out in the Air Guard Pave Hawk. The others followed in Coast Guard helo.

Nobody talked much, Davis said, except to ask for pain meds. The helicopters ferried the injured back to Dillingham, where they were met by a Coast Guard C-130 and a LifeFlight waiting to take the injured to Anchorage.

What went wrong

The day after news of the deadly crash first reached this Bristol Bay fishing town, some residents said nobody should have been flying in such soupy weather. But flying in imperfect weather is a fact of life out here. Nobody could testify to that much better than Dave Egdorf

On the afternoon of the crash, Egdorf left his home in Aleknagik, not all that far from Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik, to fly to his fishing lodge on the upper Nushagak River. The 61-year-old pilot was at the controls of a Cessna 185 floatplane, an aircraft that performs similarly, if a little less powerfully, to the turbo Otter Smith was flying. Egdorf said he headed north around 2:15 p.m. The weather, he added, had been so "stink-o" Saturday and Sunday, he was happy to see it slightly better Monday afternoon. On his way to his lodge, Egdorf said he passed within about four miles of the spot where the GCI plane would crash less than an hour behind him.

"It's unexpected and close to home, and I was flying the same area at the same time," Egdorf said. "It'll be interesting to see what the investigation shows up, because I don't understand why it happened."

What mainly bothers him, he said, is what the plane was doing at such a high altitude in the Muklung Hills. He can't understand why Smith would be flying that high given the weather conditions. It was reasonable weather for visual flight rules (VFR), he said. It was the kind of weather in which a pilot would usually be down on the deck, following the terrain as he worked around localized cells of rain and fog.

"I just figure that what he got into was some kind of squall," Egdorf said, theorizing that Smith tried to climb out only to hit a mountain.

Bo Darden, 69, is the agent for Northern Air Cargo in Dillingham. He flies the same plane as the Otter that crashed in the Muklung Hills. He is used to seeing GCI planes stop over next to his office to refuel and transfer passengers from the smaller bush planes to the larger jets and turboprops that carry them to and from Anchorage.

On Tuesday, he also helped transfer the bodies flown in from the crash site by a Pave Hawk helicopter to the C-130 that carried them on to Anchorage.

Darden said it's been a terrible summer for airplane accidents. "It's been a bad year. No doubt about it. All over the whole state," he said.

The veteran pilot said he has no idea what caused the crash, and he doesn't think anybody else does, either.

"You'll probably never know either," he said, as he petted his black pug, Harley. "The feds will make an educated guess, but that's about it."

Contact Joshua Saul at josh(at)alaskadispatch.com.