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'Denali Justice' examines legal fallout from botched 1981 Mount McKinley rescue

  • Author: Colleen Mondor
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 8, 2015

On Dec. 15, 1981, a Cessna 185 operated by Hudson's Air Service crashed at 10,300 feet in Kahiltna Pass on Mount McKinley. The pilot, Ed Hommer, and his three passengers -- his brother-in-law Dan Hartmann and tourists Patrick Scanlon and Mike Clouser -- all survived the initial crash, though Hartmann and Scanlon were both seriously injured and later died on the mountain.

Six years later, Clouser and Scanlon's estate won a federal court case against the United States, asserting negligence in the rescue effort to retrieve them from the mountain.

The idea of suing anyone associated with a rescue effort, even the federal government, typically provokes a negative reaction from many. In his book "Denali Justice," Anchorage attorney Peter Galbraith recalls how many Alaskans were disturbed by the notion that there was any case, either legal or moral, to be presented against those assigned to the rescue effort. But Galbraith asserts that the agencies involved in the rescue, including the National Park Service, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, committed errors that resulted in rescuers not reaching the survivors until four days and nights after the crash.

On Dec. 19, a volunteer climbing group out of Talkeetna dubbed the "Mountain Maniacs" finally reached the wreckage. Two years later, Galbraith filed the lawsuit on behalf of his clients and then set about making his case for why it was the right thing to do.

In the book, Galbraith primarily allows the trial transcript to speak for itself. While his own immersion in the case and opinions about witnesses are certainly part of the narrative, transcript excerpts are what lead the readers along, allowing them to view the case as Judge Andrew Kleinfeld would have seen it. His decision is thus not a complete surprise because by the final chapters, readers will likely have come to similar conclusions and be just as deeply disturbed by the events as he was.

The cause of the accident -- which the National Transportation Safety Board determined was due to the pilot's "improper in-flight decision-making and planning" -- was never part of the lawsuit. Instead, Clouser and Scanlon's estate were suing based on what happened after the crash, and essentially asking what those in need of rescue on Mount McKinley should expect from trained rescuers, and when it is fair and reasonable to assert that a rescue failed for preventable reasons. Galbraith effectively addresses the "Good Samaritan" issue, which involves legal protections for those who provide assistance to those in peril, and shows how the case was appropriate within existing law.

A central fact in the case is that the wreckage and survivors were spotted the night of Dec. 15, thanks to the Cessna's Emergency Locator Transmitter.

Two Army Chinook helicopters were ready to depart from Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks that evening to attempt a rescue, but later delayed their mission until the next morning. The case revealed that the Chinooks' failure to leave Fairbanks or even to reposition so they could approach the mountain with more fuel the next day, as well as the actions of the pilots and crews when they finally did overfly the crash site, contributed heavily to the delayed rescue.

In the course of the trial, Galbraith delved into basic questions about how rescues in Denali National Park were to be organized and who held the decision-making role. As more testimony from those involved in the Kahiltna Pass rescue was gathered, it became increasingly obvious that while the National Park Service, by its own admission, was responsible, there was a complete breakdown in that responsibility and even understanding of all the resources available to complete any such rescue.

As the park service, civilian volunteers and the multiple military groups came together and fell apart in worsening weather, the survivors watched aircraft and helicopters circle overhead. Dan Hartmann died and then, days later, so did Patrick Scanlon.

Ultimately, Galbraith won the case and Kleinfeld issued a judgment that forced deep soul searching and change among multiple rescue groups and federal agencies in Alaska. The judge's words, when explaining his decision, were blistering:

I just cannot imagine how human beings in the safety and warmth of the helicopter, a large heavy Army Chinook, flying over these people, realizing that the weather was picking up and they probably could not land, how they could fly over and not so much as drop a knapsack to these people.

He referred to the lapses in procedure and preparation for the rescue as "inexcusable":

Incredibly, the Chinook flew not equipped for a drop. The only rescue that the Chinook was equipped to do was one where they could fly in without any maneuvering necessary because of the inadequacy of the fuel, land exactly at the site or extremely close to it, pick up the victims with the parajumpers..., who were not equipped for a long stay...put the victims on the [Chinook] and leave.

[T]his was an imprudent plan. Any sensible person planning this rescue would have foreseen the possibility that the weather and the terrain, since this was the highest mountain in North America and a very complex mountain, would not permit such an easy rescue. Any sensible prudent person would have been equipped and prepared for alternatives. Most obviously, and as is required by the search and rescue plans applicable to this mission, a drop of emergency supplies.

The failure to prepare was entirely unexcused and entirely due to negligence. This negligence in the circumstances amounted to gross negligence. It was inexcusable.

There was no happy ending to the Kahiltna Pass rescue or court case, but "Denali Justice" shows why this tragic episode in Alaska's aviation history is so important. The book is an important read both for its legal drama and the intricate manner in which the trial investigated this rescue operation. In the end, Galbraith proves that the case was necessary to force the sort of deep analysis that had been absent far too long among the agencies and individuals involved. They had to honestly look at how they failed in order to improve, in hopes that -- as uncomfortable as it might be to read about -- the losses that day in December were not in vain.

Denali Justice is available online and through bookstores in Alaska. Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen@alaskadispatch.com.

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