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NTSB reveals details of crash that killed Stevens, 4 others

Patti Epler

The float plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens and eight others apparently crashed about 15 minutes after takeoff from a fishing lodge near Dillingham as it was en route to a fish camp where the party hoped to bag some silver salmon, witnesses told federal accident investigators Tuesday.

But the plane wasn't discovered until several hours later, when lodge operators called the fish camp to see if the fishing party was going to be back for dinner.

The Monday night crash of a DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter owned by Anchorage telecom company GCI claimed the lives of four Alaskans, including the 86-year-old Stevens, pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, GCI executive Dana Tindall, 48, Tindall's 16-year-old daughter Corey, and Bill Phillips Sr., a lobbyist former state Stevens chief of staff.

Also aboard the plane, injured but alive:

-- Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, 54.

-- Kevin O'Keefe, Sean O'Keefe's son.

-- William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13

-- Jim Morhard of Alexandria, Va., a lawyer and lobbyist.

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The plane went down about 3:30 p.m. Monday a short distance from Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik, about 20 miles north of Dillingham.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman briefed reporters Tuesday afternoon, soon after NTSB investigators arrived in Anchorage from Dillingham.

She emphasized that the information was preliminary and based on what witnesses told investigators. Bad weather was preventing the NTSB team from getting to the crash site and investigators still had not been on the ground there as of late Tuesday afternoon.

"According to someone who was at the lodge with the group, they ate lunch at the lodge, they discussed their departure, and they estimated they left the lodge somewhere around the 3, 3:15 time frame," Hersman said.

The witness, who is also a pilot, estimated the flight time from the lodge to the crash scene at about 15 minutes, she said.

People at the lodge called the camp about 6 p.m. to see what time the group might be returning and it was then they found out the plane had never made it. Hersman said a number of people went up in their personal aircraft and found the downed plane about 6:30 p.m.

A short time later, a doctor and two paramedics who had been at the lodge were able to land about 1,000 feet from the crash site and made their way down a wet, slippery, brush-covered slope to get to the plane.

Hersman said one of the survivors was walking around outside the plane; the other eight people were still inside.

Several aircraft were able to stay over the crash site for about 45 minutes but bad weather eventually forced them to leave, she said.

Alaska Air National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard crews also tried to make it to the crash site later in the evening but couldn't, Hersman said.

The doctor and the medics remained with the victims throughout the night and stayed in contact with rescuers via a satellite phone and hand-held radios.

Hersman declined to answer questions about the condition of the survivors and did not say whether more people might have survived the crash but died during the night or while waiting for rescuers to arrive.

Witnesses told the NTSB the plane was largely intact, with a small debris field, and that it had extensive front end damage. The wings were still attached but swept back at about a 30 degree angle.

The plane came to rest up a slope, a 100-yard gash cut out of the underbrush behind it. There was no fire and none of the occupants were ejected from the plane, Hersman said. The four survivors were airlifted to Anchorage for treatment Tuesday afternoon. Hersman said the bodies of those killed in the crash were also removed from the wreckage and flown to Anchorage.

She declined to discuss many details of the crash, including where the passengers were sitting and what emergency equipment and other avionics the plane might have carried, saying the NTSB team had not been able to determine much of that information. She said the team would be providing more updates daily as they had more information.

The pilot, Smith, had passed a physical in December 2009 and at that time had 29,000 hours of flight time. A former Alaska Airlines chief pilot, he was air-transport rated.

The aircraft itself, though built in 1957, had been overhauled in 2005 and converted from piston to turbine-powered, Hersman said.

Some NTSB investigators remained in Dillingham and planned to travel to the crash site as soon as the weather lifted, she said.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.