PALMER — An Alaska state trooper came within 40 yards of a car that crashed next to the Glenn Highway last week but never knew it was there.
Trapped inside and seriously injured was Gary Bishop, a 70-year-old retired bush pilot who spent 29 hours incapacitated at the base of a bluff near the Knik River Bridge before rescuers found him.
Thousands of drivers passed the spot where Bishop's purple 1994 Ford Crown Victoria crashed along the divided highway between Anchorage and Mat-Su.
Bishop was in deep shock and hypothermic when rescuers got to him, his wife said Monday. His heart stopped once in the ambulance en route to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
He suffered injuries including broken bones. He needed emergency surgery Wednesday for internal injuries. His condition was very fragile at first.
Janis Bishop said Monday that her husband is improving but she still doesn't know what happened.
"I just think that if it had been an hour longer, we'd be doing different things right now," she said.
Gary Bishop remained in intensive care Monday but his condition was upgraded to fair, a hospital spokesman said.
Bishop was reported missing in Palmer before noon Sunday, Sept. 17. Authorities say he apparently crashed just before 12:30 p.m., when another driver reported seeing a car go off the road.
Trooper Chris Green investigated the report but didn't find Bishop's car.
Bishop wasn't found by Anchorage police and Chugiak responders until after 5:30 p.m. the next day, when that same driver returned to the area after seeing missing-person posters — and found the car still there.
How could that happen?
Heavy brush hid the car from view and there were no tracks or broken branches leading to it, Green said during an interview Monday that also included the commander of his Palmer-based detachment.
A woman called 911 just before 12:30 p.m. that day to report seeing a maroon sedan go off the road toward the trees, he said. Anchorage dispatchers requested an "agency assist" from the troopers because Anchorage police officers were busy.
The area is within Anchorage police jurisdiction, which starts south of the Knik River Bridge. Anchorage police have said dispatchers thought the area was within troopers' territory and that's why troopers were dispatched.
Green said he drove south on the Glenn from Palmer, took the Old Glenn exit, and slowly drove an overpass to look down at any accident scene from above. He didn't see anything.
So the trooper drove down the Old Glenn on-ramp, pulled over and spent 30 minutes walking the area. He could see the rock cliff where he later learned the car crashed, but no sign of any car.
Green said he saw "heavy skid marks" on the dry pavement that indicated a vehicle came off the Glenn Highway, crossed a grassy median between the Glenn and Old Glenn highways, grazed a guardrail and then kept going.
He called the woman who reported the accident to make sure he had the right location, Green said. She confirmed he was in the right place.
Lacking any evidence besides the skid marks, he decided the car was gone, he said. "I determined the vehicle must have glanced off the guardrail and continued up the highway."
Green's commander, Capt. Tony April, said he visited the accident site later, as did the trooper.
Green practiced "due diligence" investigating the accident report, April said.
Janis Bishop didn't want to talk about the details of the accident reports or the investigation.
Instead, she wanted to express her gratitude for co-workers at Mat-Su Central School who posted missing-person flyers, everyone who prayed for Bishop's safety, and the stranger whose phone calls probably saved her husband's life.
"I really want to focus on the positive," she said Monday.
Bishop thinks it's possible her husband decided to take the Crown Vic for a test drive because it hadn't been on the road for a while.
She said her husband's condition was so grim last week that family gathered to say their last goodbyes. But his condition had improved enough by Friday that the hospital upgraded it from critical to serious.
This week, her husband was starting to talk but slowly, like "a B-rated Darth Vader movie," Bishop said. "It's real hard to understand him."
John Brown, the principal at Mat-Su Central, picked up Gary Bishop's cream-colored Carhartt baseball cap from the scene of the accident and brought it to school.
As of Monday, Janis Bishop still couldn't bring herself to retrieve it.
She said the family is relying on faith, her husband's innate toughness and a sense of humor right now.
Bishop said she was at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, as usual, on the Sunday morning her husband disappeared. He didn't go with her — also as usual. Instead, he met a friend for breakfast at Valley Hotel in Palmer.
Bishop knew something was wrong when she returned to their Wolf Lake home and he wasn't waiting for her.
She said they'll be going to church together from now on.
"He said, 'Oh boy,' " Bishop said.