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Air Guard rescues 3 of 5 glacier plane-crash victims

An Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter crashed some 8,500 feet up Knik Glacier Tuesday afternoon as its crew attempted to rescue five people stranded since their airplane crashed Sunday, according to the National Guard.

The three crewmen on the helicopter were reported to be uninjured, while two of the original crash survivors reported minor injuries, said Guard spokesman Maj. Guy Hayes.

The mishap temporarily left a dozen people stranded and two aircraft damaged near the top of Knik Glacier, south of Mount Marcus Baker, in what started in an attempt to rescue the five.

"Oh my God," said the stranded pilot's mother, Beverly Erbey of Palmer, on hearing of the second wreck. "Up until right now we've been pretty upbeat. You just kind of took the wind out of our sails."

By Tuesday night, the Air Guard reported it had rescued and was flying three of the five initial crash victims to the Palmer airport aboard an HH-60 Pave Hawk. Another Pave Hawk had been dispatched from Kulis Air National Guard Base to retrieve the other two, who couldn't go in the same flight because of weight considerations.

Nine people, including the seven Guardsmen, remained on the glacier about 8:30 p.m. The Air Guard was able to drop them additional supplies to last about a week, Hayes said.

Trouble began atop the glacier Sunday afternoon, when the PA-32 crashed during a short flight-seeing tour. The pilot, 49-year-old Donald Erbey, was flying four friends from Texas when they encountered severe weather and he tried to turn back, his family reported. The airplane hit a downdraft and crashed into a snowbank, leaving two with minor injuries and the airplane mostly intact, according to the family.

Four pararescuemen from the Alaska Air National Guard began skiing four miles up the glacier Sunday night, arriving about 21 hours later with supplies -- food, water, clothing and shelter -- to last up to three days. The pararescuemen intended to remain with passengers until they could be rescued.

On Monday, the Guard had an HC-130 and an HH-60 helicopter circling overhead awaiting a break in the weather, but they were redirected to the Dillingham area after an airplane crashed there Monday, killing five, including former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Hayes said.

Severe weather earlier on Tuesday stymied several attempts to retrieve the people by an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, which met the that have kept rescue flights at bay since Sunday, troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said.

"There was a report of white-out conditions," Ipsen said. "Freezing rain, white-out conditions and snow."

The Black Hawk was one of two in Fairbanks that were heading back to Fort Richardson on Tuesday when they were diverted to attempt a rescue, Hayes said.

The birds got up to the crash site some 44 miles southeast of Palmer, and one tried to land to recover the five passengers, who had been on a short flight-seeing tour and were ill-prepared for an extended glacier-top stay, and the four pararescuemen who skied 4 miles up the glacier with supplies to help them.

At some point during the landing attempt, the UH-60 Black Hawk "slid and rolled over" on the glacier, leaving the multi-million dollar aircraft "heavily damaged," Hayes said. Hayes said authorities planned to investigate the mishap.

The second Black Hawk was able report the incident and return to Fort Richardson, Hayes said. An HH-60 Pave Hawk and an HC-130 Hercules were dispatched to the scene to circle above and attempt a rescue if the weather allowed, he said.

"We're still doing exactly what we've been trying to do," Hayes said. "They're just going to wait for that weather opening and try to get in there and pull everybody off."

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

By JAMES HALPIN

jhalpin@adn.com

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