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All 12 rescued from glacier, Air Guard says

A three-day operation to rescue five plane-crash survivors from atop the Knik Glacier and the four National Guardsmen who skied in to get them supplies -- as well as three crewmen whose Black Hawk crashed trying to save the lot -- ended Wednesday after the last of the people was flown to safety.

None of the dozen people who ended up stranded some 8,500 feet up the glacier reported serious injuries following the ordeal that began as a simple hourlong flightseeing trip.

Four visitors from Galveston, Texas -- identified as Fred Lantz, 60, wife Mary Jan, 52, and their children, Patrick, 27, and David, 22 -- had just wanted to catch a view of Alaska's frozen landscape, said Donny Erbey, the 49-year-old family friend who piloted the airplane. Erbey took them up in his father's Piper PA-32 on Sunday afternoon, dressed for his 2:30 p.m. tee time at a local golf course, he said in an interview Wednesday.

"It was just going to be an hour trip. No big deal. I've done this a hundred times," Erbey said.

The weather had been good, and Erbey planned to fly them over College Fjord and then toward Lake George to look for bears. As they ascended the glacier, fog grew thicker. They were near the top of the glacier --and about 500 feet above it -- when Erbey saw clouds rising and tried to turn but got thrown into a downdraft, he said.

"I had a nose-up attitude. That meant I was supposed to be climbing, but my altimeter was telling me I was going down," Erbey said. "It was kind of surreal. It was just a bump, bump, bump and we stopped."

Two people suffered some minor cuts and bruises, but everyone was OK, he said. The plane's struts were slightly damaged but the plane was intact, he said. But the airplane had recently been cleaned out and there were no emergency supplies. The guests were wearing jackets, but Erbey was wearing only a light vest, T-shirt and sweatpants, he said.

They activated an emergency beacon and contacted a pilot in the area, who relayed information for them, he said. Erbey rearranged the seats in the airplane so the people could be close and stay warm in the cabin. Outside, the temperature fell to the mid-20s, but it stayed about 40 inside.

The Air Guard picked up the beacon at about 1 p.m. and sent a helicopter with four pararescuemen, identified as Maj. Jesse Peterson, Master Sgt. Al Lankford, Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte and Tech. Sgt. Angel Santana. Lankford said in an interview Wednesday that they found a thick layer of clouds between the them and the glacier, making a landing impossible.

The crew returned to the base of the glacier and was dropped off just above a large stretch of crevasses, about four miles and 2,000 vertical feet from where they thought the stranded party was located. Outfitted with two sleds full of extra clothes, food, sleeping bags and emergency supplies -- weighing up to 150 pounds each -- the pararescuers skied up the mountain.

It was slow going. Lankford said it felt as though the wind was whipping at 40 miles per hour. They couldn't see any terrain around them. It was a complete whiteout.

"You'd see sky and mountain ranges, and five minutes later you'd see nothing," Lankford said. "The weather was absolutely heinous."

The weather was so severe they lost track of each other, he said.

"We were split up into to two teams of two and, with the whiteout conditions on the glacier, we were separated from each other," Lankford said. "There were some pretty hairy crevasses to cross."

Finally, there was a break in the clouds and the rescuers spotted a red stripe in the snow -- the tail of the plane. The crash victims were hunkered down inside. It had taken the pararescuers roughly 20 hours to cover the four miles to the crash site.

"The four PJs that came up there, those guys risked their lives," Erbey said.

Meanwhile, the National Guard had helicopters and refueling aircraft circling above, looking for a break in the weather. An HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter and HC-130 plane that had been circling were diverted Monday night to the Dillingham area, where another plane crash killed five, including former Sen. Ted Stevens.

Two Black Hawks on their way from Fairbanks to Fort Richardson were dispatched to the area. One of them attempted a landing several hundred yards away, Erbey said. The pilot, who last reported the aircraft was about 100 feet up, radioed that he could see the survivors and that he was coming in for a landing, he said.

"Right about then, he got the same thing I did, he got hit with a downdraft. All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, they were upside down," Erbey said. "They were doing everything that they were supposed to do and they were safe, but Mother Nature kicked them in the ass, just like she did to me."

A cloud of dust blew up, and when it cleared they could see the chopper inverted on the snow and its crew members climbing out. The rotor blades were spread out on the snow about 80 yards apart, he said.

The pararescuemen already on the ground went to them to check for injuries and found the crew shaken up but uninjured.

"If anybody in that helicopter had been injured, I would not be the same person," Erbey said. "I was the one that caused this."

The National Guard pulled the second Black Hawk back to base.

A Pave Hawk was able to retrieve Mary, Patrick, and David Lantz on Tuesday night, but the weather closed up again before the others could be extracted. The Guard dropped in a week's worth of supplies and brought the three Texans to Palmer. The weather again cleared enough on Wednesday to allow an aircraft in to get the rest of the people at about 12:30 p.m., according to the Guard.

Reporter Jim Halpin can be reached at 257-4589, or online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin.

By JAMES HALPIN and KAYLIN BETTINGER

Anchorage Daily News

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