Aviation

Two men besides lone survivor initially survived Knik Glacier heli-ski crash, new court filings say

Two men besides the sole survivor lived through a high-profile March 2021 heli-skiing crash above Knik Glacier but died waiting for a rescue delayed by failures in communications and flight tracking, according to two federal court filings in Anchorage.

The Airbus AS350B3 operated by Wasilla’s Soloy Helicopters with two guides and three clients from Tordrillo Mountain Lodge crashed 21 miles southeast of Palmer in the Chugach Mountains. It was among the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accidents in North American history.

Petr Kellner, 56, the richest man in the Czech Republic, and internationally renowned heli-ski guide Gregory Harms, 52, were among the dead.

The new court documents, however, indicate that Kellner and another person thought to be Harms remained alive in the wreckage after the helicopter’s chaotic tumble down a mountainside.

Kellner survived after the crash but “died while waiting for rescue,” according to filings in a U.S. District Court case involving a settlement between the survivor and Soloy.

Harms is also believed to have survived initially but “suffered severe and ultimately fatal personal injuries,” according to a separate civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court last week.

Also killed were 33-year-old Soloy pilot Zachary Russell of Anchorage; guide Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood; and 50-year-old French snowboarder Benjamin Larochaix.

By the time rescuers arrived, they found only one survivor: 48-year-old Czech snowboarder David Horvath.

The federal court documents don’t say how long Kellner or Harms lived, what caused their deaths, or provide evidence they could have survived had quicker crash alerts triggered faster rescue efforts.

For reasons as yet unclear, no one immediately knew the helicopter was down. An emergency locator beacon didn’t trigger on impact. If anyone tracked the trip in real time, no one raised alarms.

The Rescue Coordination Center, responsible for dispatching elite Alaska National Guard pararescuers for mountain missions, got notification about an overdue helicopter more than 2 1/2 hours after the crash.

‘Waiting to be rescued’

The National Transportation Safety Board is looking closely at the cause of the crash and why no one immediately reported a problem when the Soloy helicopter’s signal suddenly stopped high in the Chugach. A major investigative report isn’t expected out until later this year.

Investigators found the helicopter was maneuvering low over a ridgeline above the glacier, the pilot likely looking for a spot to put down, when it crashed and tumbled about 900 feet, leaving a trail of debris. Snow filled the wreckage.

Horvath, still in his seat, was buried in snow from his thighs down when Alaska National Guard pararescuers got to the wreckage at 5,500 feet, according to an account from the team leader.

They extricated him around 12:30 a.m., six hours after the crash. It was 14 degrees out.

Horvath’s Homer-based attorney, Tracey Knutson, in one filing paints a grim picture of his ordeal, “trapped in a crushed helicopter full of snow, aviation fuel and the blood of various men.”

Horvath spent over a week at Providence Alaska Medical Center, including four days in serious condition, before he was able to fly home.

He suffered broken ribs and dislocated both knees, necessitating reconstructive knee surgeries, according to Knutson’s filings. Necrosis in his hands from the long wait in the frigid air of the high mountains prompted the amputation of some fingers on his right hand.

He lost all the fingers on his left hand, his attorney said.

“Aside from the trauma of experiencing the instant deaths of two of his party and the pilot,” Knutson wrote in a filing, “Mr. Horvath suffered the death of the other two members of his party waiting to be rescued.”

The timeline

The helicopter’s tracking signal halted around 6:35 p.m. March 27, 2021, federal investigators say, but an emergency beacon that normally provides the first alert about a crash didn’t trigger.

Soloy didn’t initiate overdue-aircraft protocols until the helicopter failed to arrive at its Wasilla base at 8 p.m., federal investigators have said.

It was 9:10 p.m. -- two hours and 35 minutes after the crash -- when the Rescue Coordination Center first received a report of a helicopter missing with six aboard, according to an Alaska Command spokeswoman. The center dispatches National Guard pararescuers, generally once crash locations are known.

A different helicopter company diverted to look for the Soloy ship and spotted the wreckage around 9:40 p.m. The RCC started the official rescue mission by 9:45 p.m., according to an incident report. The Alaska State Troopers were notified about the crash at 9:50 p.m., a spokesman said.

Guard pararescuers found only Horvath alive when they located the wreckage around 11:45 p.m., according to the report. The other victims were inside. Just one man was found outside the helicopter, about 30 feet away, face up and looking at the sky.

‘Several hours delay’

Generally, helicopter companies conducting heli-skiing trips without flight plans are required to use electronics to track aircraft carrying passengers, stay in communication and file emergency response plans.

Companies that guide clients on heli-skiing expeditions usually follow industry guidelines for following flights and staying in touch with guides at close intervals using radio or satellite communication.

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed on behalf of Harms’ domestic partner and their young child last week claims Soloy pilot Russell was inexperienced and made mistakes that caused the crash.

But the lawsuit also alleges that Soloy failed to keep track of its helicopter, stay in touch with Russell, or initiate emergency procedures once he became overdue for a check-in.

“Evidence to date reveals that decedent Gregory Harms survived the crash, but ultimately died due to lack of flight tracking and required communications with the subject helicopter, as well as several hours delay in commencing emergency search and rescue alerts, communications and plans,” the complaint says.

A spokesman for Soloy said the company does not comment on pending litigation.

Anchorage attorney Scott Broadwell, who is serving as local counsel, declined to comment on the lawsuit this week.

Harms was a larger-than-life adventurer based out of Aspen who friends say lived a nomadic skiing life following the best snow: Colorado in early winter, Alaska in the spring, the Andes in the summer. He survived a helicopter accident in Chile in the 1990s that killed two others. He had recently become a father before his death.

An outdoor entrepreneur who owned Third Edge Heli, Harms was working for Tordrillo Mountain Lodge as a guide the day of the crash.

The complaint says the plaintiffs “are precluded from asserting claims” against the lodge. Instead, it says, they are pursuing any arguments under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act but may amend the complaint in the future.

A legacy ‘reflected in charity’

Kellner, along with Larochaix, was a frequent guest at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, representatives said last year.

The death of the intensely private man with a fondness for adrenaline-fueled adventures triggered international headlines. Kellner, “Czechia’s richest man and its preeminent oligarch” as BalkanInsight described him, was reportedly worth more than $15 billion and controlled one of his country’s largest corporations, the Netherlands-based PPF Group.

The Czech billionaire founded PPF Group, Central Europe’s largest investment company.

A PPF spokesman contacted for this story said he couldn’t comment on any of the court filings due to the ongoing NTSB investigation.

Kellner’s legacy includes building PPF, which has continued to grow since his death, spokesman Leoš Rousek said.

“The legacy of PPF’s founder is also reflected in charity, including current support for refugee families fleeing the war in Ukraine,” Rousek said.

Horvath, a father of three, worked as Kellner’s photographer, his attorney wrote. Now he is unemployed.

Soloy Helicopters and its insurers are pursuing a financial settlement with Horvath, the details of which are confidential, the company said in a statement.

“The Soloy team continues to have its thoughts with the families of all the victims including our own colleague who passed in the accident as well as with the survivor in his ongoing recovery and rehabilitation from his injuries,” the statement said.

Lodge gets settlement set-aside

Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in mid-March asked a federal judge to freeze $175,000 of the settlement to keep it in the United States to cover future legal costs should Horvath sue over the delayed rescue.

Senior U.S. District Judge John Sedwick ordered the money set aside on March 18.

“Judges don’t do that lightly,” said Tim Lamb, the attorney representing lodge owner Triumvirate LLC, which includes Olympic gold medal skier Tommy Moe, Alaska heli-ski pioneer Mike Overcast, and Michael Rheam.

Alaska is a “loser pays state,” where people who file civil lawsuits and lose pay a portion of the winning attorney’s fees.

In case filings, Lamb says Horvath’s attorney has threatened to file a lawsuit.

Knutson in an interview said Horvath hasn’t taken any action against the lodge or decided whether to file a lawsuit.

“That right there is why this is so passive-aggressive, nasty ... that they would take a legal action against him,” Knutson said.

The lodge’s contract with Soloy that day gave the lodge responsibility for “flight following,” Knutson wrote in a filing opposing the set-aside. She contends the lodge failed to follow the helicopter’s flight track, stay in touch with the people in the helicopter, and initiate an emergency response plan “when the aircraft became long overdue.”

Horvath signed a waiver holding the lodge harmless from any claims, Lamb wrote in a filing. That’s why he expects to prevail in court should a suit be filed.

Knutson argues that waivers don’t necessarily cover risks like delayed rescue for an overdue aircraft.

In an interview, Lamb said there was no merit to the allegations against the lodge.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “This is an unfortunate helicopter accident.”

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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