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Plane crash survivor reunites with saviors 25 years after ‘miracle’ Bering Sea rescue

Dave Anderson describes being rescued after the plane he was riding on crashed into the Bering Sea 25 years ago.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

Dave Anderson still gets emotional about the day in 1993 the plane carrying his missionary group crashed in the Bering Sea.

The six passengers and pilot were returning from the Russian Far East that August day when their twin-engine Piper Navajo ran out of fuel about 25 miles west of Nome.

What happened became the stuff of news stories and national awards.

The plane crashed, leaving everyone aboard clinging to empty gas cans. A series of extraordinary events led to the arrival of two helicopters that pulled all seven survivors from icy water to safety.

Coverage of the Aug. 13, 1993 Bering Sea rescue was printed in the Aug. 19, 1993 edition of the Nome Nugget. (Courtesy of the Nome Nugget)

Some might credit a rare combination of training, serendipity and skill.

Anderson, who now leads a retreat ministry in Arizona, credits a higher power.

"We believe our lives were in the hands of a personal, merciful, powerful God," he said last week just before he and guitarist Roger Walck performed at Palmer's St. John Lutheran Church. "It's a real blessing to be able to tell the story. We believe in miracles. We believe in rescue."

'Rescue tour'

Anderson this month made his sixth trip to Alaska since the crash. He calls his rescuers every year on the anniversary.

Anderson's wife, Barb, also survived the crash. She has made several trips back to Alaska with him, but Anderson came up solo this time.

Anderson and Walck scheduled concerts and appearances at churches in Anchorage, Eagle River, Homer, Soldotna and Palmer. Anderson addressed air-traffic controllers in Anchorage.

The pair was scheduled to fly to Nome for a dinner Saturday night with rescuers at a Front Street cafe and one more church service Sunday.

They also plan to make a trip to Sledge Island — the steep-sided chunk of rock about 20 miles from Nome that briefly sheltered the group all those years ago.

Among several rescuers they plan to meet with is Eric Penttila, one of the helicopter pilots from Nome.

Penttila is retired now. But he recounts the rescue like it was yesterday.

A west wind was kicking up a 3-foot swell as he lowered the helicopter toward survivors, Penttila said in an interview.

"I had to put the skid in the water but I also had to watch the swells coming at me from the west to make sure they didn't get fouled up in the tail rudder," he said. "That would probably have been a disaster."

'I'm not sure how much fuel we've got left'

It was Friday the 13th that August day when the mission group departed Laverntija, leaving behind food, medicine and Bibles but taking with them scores of empty gas cans. The Navajo stopped in Provideniya in Russia, then landed briefly on St. Lawrence Island.

The flight out of Gambell en route to Nome was so turbulent that Barb Anderson prayed for smoother air.

In a video documenting the event, she described her relief when the plane leveled off above the clouds at 7,000 feet.

But the gas gauges looked "perilously low," she remembered thinking.

Pilot Dave Cochran, also interviewed for the video, said he initially thought he he had more than enough fuel to get to Nome.

Then one engine sputtered and died.

Cochran notified the Federal Aviation Administration's Anchorage air-traffic control center.

"Indicators were apparently off. We've run out of fuel on one tank and we're descending now toward Sledge Island and, uh, I'm not sure how much fuel we've got left in the other," Cochran said in a radio communication.

Controller Chris Brown asked if he was declaring an emergency.

"I believe we are," Cochran replied. "Yes please."

Helpless

Dave Anderson, who'd been sleeping, woke to the plane's terrible side-to-side motion and the sight of wide-eyed companions.

Cochran said he tried to hold the plane at 130 mph for the best glide speed. The plane dropped several thousand feet in a minute, Anderson remembers.

At that point, the mission group began "an informal prayer meeting," he said.

The air-traffic controllers went over the emergency checklist — number of souls on board, remaining fuel — and waited.

"I felt kind of helpless," Greg Rakowski, the other controller involved in the rescue, said on the video. "It bothered me. I wanted to do more."

The other tank was out, Cochran reported a few minutes later. He scanned the churning waves below for a good spot to put down the plane.

They were a few miles from Sledge Island when the Navajo hit the water at 90 mph.

'A very present help'

The plane skidded and spun around, passenger Brian Brasher remembered on the video.

Brasher, the youngest in the group and sitting up front next to Cochran, told everybody to grab one of the empty gas cans that lined the aisle "and get out on the water."

The plane sank about a minute later, Dave Anderson said.

Dave Anderson tells the story of his dramatic rescue from the Bering Sea in 1993 to a group of air-traffic controllers in Anchorage on Monday. (Anne Raup / ADN)

All seven floated together at first but quickly began separating in the wind and waves, the 36-degree water sapping their strength.

Brasher was yelling Bible verses: "God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble" and "This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!"

Anderson, separated from his wife by frigid seas and struggling to move his arms, wondered about that particular verse.

"Is that required?" he remembered thinking, he said during an interview last week. "Am I supposed to be glad about this?"

Spotted

Back at the Anchorage air-traffic center, Brown and Rakowski noticed a radar blip near Nome. An unidentified plane.

They contacted counterparts in Nome. What plane was that? Were they in contact with it?

The Nome controller knew the plane — a Bering Air flight piloted by Terry Day — and radioed the pilot.

Day told controllers he'd seen what he thought was a whale in that area. He turned back to look again. He flew over, flew back and started to circle, not seeing anything.

Then a passenger spotted people splashing in the sea below.

Brown and Rakowski couldn't believe it. Still, Brown said on the video, they didn't expect to hear a survival story given the brief life expectancy in such cold water.

Day, low on fuel, put out an urgent request for another plane to come follow his path so the crash survivors would stay in sight.

Another pilot was just taking off from Nome with 90 minutes of fuel.

Dave Anderson said it was a bizarre sight: As he and the others foundered in the water, two planes chased each other in the sky.

That's when the call went out for helicopters to help with a rescue.

Members of the Nome National Guard, who usually respond to such emergencies, were on the way back from another mission and couldn't assist, authorities said at the time.

Ready for the worst

Penttila, an Evergreen pilot at the time, was just getting ready to go fishing when flight service called. He got ready to fly.

Randy Oles, the "biggest, strongest" firefighter in Nome's volunteer department, came along. They loaded seven body bags into the helicopter.

By the time the helicopter got to the scene, the survivors had scattered across a quarter-mile of ocean, Penttila recalled. He dropped to the waves as Oles climbed down and straddled a skid.

They got to Brasher first, but he waved them to another survivor who was talking about how he'd never see loved ones again.

Coverage of the Aug. 13, 1993 Bering Sea rescue was printed in the Aug. 19, 1993 edition of the Nome Nugget. (Courtesy of the Nome Nugget)

Dave Anderson figured he'd been in the water for about 40 minutes by then. Anderson couldn't pull himself up, and Oles struggled to haul him in until the helicopter's skid dropped below one of Anderson's legs. He was lifted into the helicopter.

Cochran, dropping below the surface of the water and deathly pale, was next. He was unconscious.

"He was one of the toughest ones," Oles said on the video.

Penttila deposited the three on Sledge Island, then went back for more.

'Dying in the water'

Meanwhile, an Era helicopter with a Canadian geophysical surveyor aboard, rescued Barb Anderson — twice.

Dave Miles, the surveyor, struggled to grab her hand as she bobbed in the waves. Finally, Miles recounted, he basically pinned Anderson's head between his legs. She dangled by her neck as the helicopter headed for the island.

Near the rocky beach, Miles lost his grip on Anderson and told the pilot to lower toward the water. She dropped about 15 feet back into the waves.

Miles got dropped off on the beach and waded up to his neck in water so cold it knocked the wind out of him.

Anderson, as she said on the video, was "dying in the water." She had an out-of-body experience. Then she heard Miles behind her.

"He said you can make it! Come to me. I can't come to you," she recalled. "I have been dying all this time and I could have walked to shore."

A helicopter brought her to the top of the island, where the others waited. Her husband, who thought she was gone, stumbled toward her in joy. By then, the hypothermic survivors were in bad shape. Cochran was slurring his words. Another passenger was throwing up.

Penttila put all seven in his helicopter — some in the cargo area — and brought them from the top of Sledge Island to Nome, where they were treated for hypothermia.

They were all out of the hospital by the next day.

Anderson says he's told the rescue story thousands of times. The only person involved whom he hasn't met is the Bering Air passenger who first spotted people splashing in the water.

Some people call the story of salvation a miraculous set of coincidences, Anderson said.

"But to me, it was a divine appointment," he said.

Dave Anderson describes being rescued after the plane he was riding on crashed into the Bering Sea 25 years ago. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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