On a rainy Monday afternoon in remote Southwest Alaska, the news of a missing plane propelled Ron Duncan, chief executive of General Communications Inc., into a world of grief. Nine of his close friends had boarded a GCI prop plane at the company's lodge and were headed off on a short flight to a fish camp. When Duncan learned the plane had never arrived at its destination, he and his wife -- a doctor -- would set out to rescue their friends on a mountainside.
Upon reaching the wreckage of the single-engine Otter, Duncan's wife discovered the crash had killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, along with Duncan's close friend, GCI executive Dana Tindall. Her daughter, 16-year-old Corey Tindall, had also died. Former Stevens aide Bill Phillips and pilot Terry Smith, another close friend of Duncan's, were dead, too. All died from blunt -force trauma.
Four others passengers -- Philips' 13-year-old son Willy, former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe and his 19 year old son, Kevin, and businessman Jim Morhard -- are recovering from injuries.
On Friday, a National Transportation Safety Board official told reporters that one of the survivors doesn't recall the plane making any unusual movements or sounds before it crashed. "They were flying along, and they just stopped flying," the survivor told investigators, according to NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman.
On Friday, less than five days after the accident, Duncan himself recalled the crash and what he knew of his pilot friend who he'd entrusted with the lives of his friends.
'Best pilot in the state of Alaska'
As investigators continue to piece together what facts they can extract from the wreckage and the rattled survivors, Duncan said he is confident a competent pilot was at the controls. Terry Smith helped him learn to fly nearly three decades ago and the two flew together numerous times over the last 20 years, Duncan said.
As with any plane crash, investigators review the pilot's background and experience. In the case of Smith, a former Alaska Airlines pilot and experienced bush pilot, many friends and other pilots have said he was among the best in the state.
Duncan acknowledged that Smith was grieving in the days leading up to the crash, having just returned from the funeral for his son-in-law -- an Air Force pilot killed when a military cargo plane crashed just days earlier.
Still, Duncan had no problem with GCI hiring Smith on contract to replace the company's regular pilot at GCI's lodge, where the company has for years invited employees, clients, friends and sometimes politicians and regulators. The regular pilot unexpectedly "walked out" earlier this summer for reasons unrelated to flying, Duncan said. Smith had worked for GCI on and off for years, and he and other highly-regarded pilots had been brought in to fill the summer vacancy in shifts, he said.
Smith had been on stints at the lodge and logged hours flying GCI's Otter this summer before the crash, according to both Duncan and the NTSB's Hersman. He knew the terrain and area around Dillingham well, Duncan said.
"I still believe he was the best pilot in the state of Alaska," he added.
A turbulent morning
On the morning of Aug. 9 -- the day of the crash -- Smith had encountered significant turbulence on a flight to Dillingham and felt that it was too bumpy to fly passengers to a fish camp south of the lodge on the Nushagak River, Duncan recalled. Guests spent the morning beside a fire at the lodge, visiting and waiting for weather to improve. After lunch, Smith thought conditions looked better. He and eight passengers loaded into the fire-engine red Otter and were on their way sometime after 2 p.m. in what should have been a 15- to 30-minute flight to the fish camp.
A call was made to alert fishing guides at the camp to get boats and rods ready - a planeload of anglers was on their way -- but the Otter never arrived.
"The folks on the other end never called us," said Duncan of the delay in learning that the plane never made it to the fish camp. "Our expectation was that if they didn't show up, that we would have received a call back, ‘Where are they?'"
Procedure was for somebody at the lodge to call the fish camp and let them know guests were coming their way, Duncan said. When the plane landed, boats with motors running would be waiting to whisk eager fishermen along the river. But it was not standard procedure, he said, to verify that all was well and that everyone had arrived safely.
Only when the lodge called hours later to find out if the group would return in time for dinner did anybody become aware of a "significant abnormality," Duncan said.
The Otter was outfitted with communications equipment, he said, and Duncan is sure that Smith would have called if there was a change of course or a problem, if he could have. A search was soon launched, rescue crews alerted, and before long the wreckage was discovered.
"Maybe the lack of a formal procedure had some effect here," Duncan said. "This is the first time we've had the problem."
When news of the missing plane spread, Duncan's wife, Dr. Janice-Dani Bowman, grabbed medical equipment and the two took to the air in Duncan's personal plane to join the search. After the downed planed was located, Dr. Janice-Dani Bowman was one of the first people to reach the wreckage and survivors. She and three other good Samaritans dropped in by helicopter and comforted the four survivors overnight before rescue crews were finally able to reach the scene Tuesday morning.
"The four of them that spent the night on the site with the survivors and the victims were very much heroes, and it's clear to me that those four people are alive because those other people got to them," Duncan said.
Not only did they comfort the injured but they directed the rescue crews to the scene the next morning. Foggy, rainy weather made visibility extremely poor. Listening on the radio as the rescue unfolded, Duncan heard his wife and others talking the Air National Guard helicopter to the scene. The helicopter crew couldn't see the crash site, but through the fog the ground team spotted the chopper's search light.
Flying into the clouds, the military helicopter crew inched their way in a hover up the side of the mountain, looking at trees. The ground crew radioed at what angle and how far away the light appeared to be. The helicopter pilot adjusted his position until he finally caught site of the scene. Within 90 minutes, the first victims were on their way to safety.
'Struggling to comprehend'
Bowman has declined to talk about her experience on the mountainside tending to her friends. She was closer to Stevens than Duncan, having known the senator since his days he was an Alaska legislator in the 1960s.
"It's a very emotional area for many of us," Duncan said. "Both the survivors and the families of the victims are still struggling to comprehend what happened and to understand what it was like there that night."
He and Bowman "lose it" from time to time, he said, but being strong for others is helping them get through. They're helping to arrange the funeral for Dana Tindall, a beloved GCI employee whom Duncan was close with, and her daughter Corey. Other families need their support. And Duncan must run the company.
"To lose all of those people in a single shot is very, very difficult," Duncan said. "The healing process is going to be long and slow. This is a big wound and it will be a big scar that always remains."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.