DILLINGHAM, Alaska – An amphibious plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens crashed into a remote mountainside during a fishing trip, killing the state’s most beloved political figure and four others and stranding the survivors on a rocky, brush-covered slope overnight.
Three teenagers and their parents, including the former head of NASA, were on the plane when it plowed into the mountain Monday afternoon with so much force that it left a 300-foot gash on the slope, federal investigators said.
A doctor and two EMTs hiked to the scene Monday evening and tended to the survivors’ broken bones, cuts and bruises during a cold and frightening night on the mountain with the pungent odor of jet fuel wafting through the air.
A 13-year-old boy survived but had to spend the night near his dead father and the senator. A mother and her 16-year-old daughter died. Former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe survived, as did his teenage son.
The 86-year-old Stevens’ death stunned lawmakers and residents alike because of his pre-eminence in Alaska history: A decorated World War II pilot who survived a deadly 1978 plane crash, he was the longest-serving GOP senator in history and became the patron saint of Alaska politics as he brought billions of federal dollars home.
One failed effort – the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” – became part of his national legacy, as did corruption convictions that helped foil his 2008 campaign after 40 years in office. The case was later tossed out.
Investigators with the NTSB arrived Tuesday at the crash site outside Dillingham, located on Bristol Bay about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. The cause was not immediately known, but weather is one area investigators will examine.
The flights at Dillingham are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather. NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman said weather conditions at the time of the accident included light rain, clouds and gusty winds.
Hersman said the group had eaten lunch at a lodge and boarded a 1957 red-and-white float plane between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. local time for a trip to a salmon fishing camp.
Lodge operators called the fish camp at 6 p.m. to inquire when the party would be returning for dinner, but were told that they never showed up. Civilian aircraft were dispatched, and pilots quickly spotted the wreckage a few miles from the lodge, Hersman said.
The doctor and EMTs were flown to the area and hiked to the wreckage as fog and rain blanketed the area and nightfall set in, making it impossible for rescue officials to reach the scene until daybreak.
Pilot Tom Tucker helped shuttle the medical personnel to the scene.
It was rainy and cold, and he believes their heavy duty fishing waders protected the survivors when they went into shock.
“We covered them up with blankets and made them as comfortable as we could,” he said.
He said there was no rhyme or reason to how some survived the crash. The pilot was killed, but a passenger in the co-pilot’s seat survived. “The front of the aircraft was gone,” he said. “He was just sitting in the chair.”
They made a tarp tent over the missing cockpit to keep him dry.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the DeHavilland DHC-3T was registered to Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company.
Four survivors were taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage with “varying degrees of injuries,” Alaska State Troopers said. Former NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said O’Keefe, 54, and his son had broken bones and other injuries.
Sean O’Keefe was listed in critical condition late Tuesday afternoon, while son Kevin was listed in serious condition and sleeping.
The other survivors were William “Willy” Phillips Jr., 13; and Jim Morhard, of Alexandria, Va.
The victims were identified as Stevens; pilot Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River; William “Bill” Phillips Sr.; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with GCI; and her 16-year-old daughter Corey Tindall.
Stevens and O’Keefe were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Republican lawmaker led for several years. Stevens became a protege to the younger O’Keefe and they remained close friends over the years. Morhard and the elder Phillips also worked with Stevens in Washington.
Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are not accessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air to reach their destinations.
Stevens was one of two survivors in a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and several others.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the state had lost a hero and “I lost a dear friend,” praising Stevens’ service during World War II. He flew cargo planes over “the hump” in the Himalayas and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“Alaska has lost one of its greatest statesmen and a true pioneer of our state with the passing of Sen. Ted Stevens,” said Murkowski’s counterpart, Mark Begich, who defeated Stevens in 2008 and who lost his politician father in a plane crash in 1972.
Stevens was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. (The late Strom Thurmond was in the Senate longer than Stevens, but he spent a decade there as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.)
Stevens was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years. He brought in “Stevens money” that literally helped keep the remote state solvent. The Anchorage airport is also named in his honor.
Stevens’ standing in Alaska was toppled by corruption allegations and a federal trial in 2008. He was convicted of all seven counts – and narrowly lost to Begich in the election the following week. But five months later, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Stevens never discussed the events publicly.