Alaska trailblazer and former Senator Ted Stevens is dead at 86 after a plane carrying him and eight other passengers crashed into the side of a mountain Monday night. Treacherous weather is believed to have caused the accident.
Investigators will be on the scene Wednesday of a plane crash that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others.
Autopsies on the victims are expected to be completed by the end of the day Wednesday.
The plane flew into the side of a remote Alaska mountain on Monday night.
Brutal terrain and bad weather on the remote Alaska mountain kept survivors waiting 12 hours for rescue after the crash, officials and witnesses said Tuesday.
“The weather was very challenging for those responding,” said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Pilots flying over the crash site said the amphibious DeHavilland DHC-Z3T Otter flew into the side of the mountain, which has a 40-degree slope. The pilots didn’t think anyone on board had survived, but four did.
Eric Shade, one of the pilots who found the wreckage, said the plane appeared to have traveled at least 100 feet from the point of impact.
“It was pretty smashed,” Shade sad. “The wings were laying behind the fuselage on each side. I couldn’t see the floats; the floats were underneath it. I couldn’t see anything in the front of the airplane. From the window forward … everything was gone.”
Shade said the doomed pilot’s path didn’t appear to make sense, given the location.
“When you’re flying down low, into stuff like this, you’re flying in the hills — in between the hills. You have to know where they’re at,” Shade said. “He flew into the side of the mountain. I have no idea how he got there.”
There was no fire on the scene, Hersman said at a news conference. The area was so rugged and rocky that rescuers airlifted in a physician with a satellite phone, and the doctor had to hike 1,000 feet to reach the site, she said.
Five volunteers, including some with medical training, assisted and stabilized the survivors overnight, officials said. One of the survivors was outside the fuselage when the doctor arrived.
“What we can say very clearly is there was a lot of selfless work that was done last night, and there were a lot of people who were applying their skills and also supporting those individuals who were trapped on the hillside,” Hersman said. “Obviously, we don’t know what would have happened if they had not been there, but we do thank the Lord that they were there.”
The cause of the crash was not known late Tuesday, but Maj. Guy Hayes of the Alaska National Guard said weather will certainly be considered.
“Poor weather always remains a factor when you are out here … weather can change drastically,” Hayes told CNN.
The crash claimed the lives of passengers both young and old.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety identified the dead as Stevens, of Anchorage, Alaska; pilot Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River, Alaska; lobbyist William “Bill” Phillips Sr. of the Washington, D.C., area; GCI executive Dana Tindall, 48, of Anchorage, Alaska; and her daughter Corey Tindall, 16, of Anchorage, Alaska. The bodies have been recovered and sent to Anchorage.
Injured were William “Willy” Phillips Jr., 13, son of Bill Phillips Sr.; Sean O’Keefe, 54; his son, Kevin O’Keefe; and lobbyist Jim Morhard, Alexandria, Virginia.
Sean O’Keefe was listed in critical condition, and Kevin O’Keefe was in serious condition late Tuesday, said Kirsten Schultz, a spokeswoman for Providence Alaska Medical Center.
The aircraft, on a fishing trip, crashed around 7 p.m. Monday about 17 miles north of Dillingham in the southwestern area of the state, authorities said.
When the nine people onboard had not arrived at a camp on time, the search began. The pilot was not required to file a flight plan, authorities said.
The Dillingham region, near the Bering Sea southwest of Anchorage, is rugged terrain surrounded by mountains.
Because of its vast size, air travel is common in Alaska, often through perilous weather. Stevens expressed his own fears after a 1978 crash that killed his first wife and four others.
“Plane crashes are the occupational hazard of Alaska politics,” Stevens told The Washington Post in 1979. The Post added, “He said he often felt as if one’s number had to come up eventually, and even though he had been a fighter pilot in World War II, the prospect of flying around in his campaign frightened him.”
Stevens, 86, was remembered Tuesday as a “lion who retreated before nothing” and for being a guiding light in the formation of the 49th state. He was the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate’s history and a champion for Alaska.
“Though small of stature, Ted Stevens seemed larger than life. For he built Alaska. And stood for Alaska. And he fought for Alaskans,” Gov. Sean Parnell said at a news conference. “How can we summarize six decades of service?”
President Barack Obama extended his condolences to the families, including that of Stevens, who flew in support of the Flying Tigers in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
“A decorated World War II veteran, Senator Ted Stevens devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform,” Obama said in a written statement.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, said Stevens fought tenaciously for Alaska.
“In our land of towering mountains and larger-than-life characters, none were larger than the man who in 2000 was voted Alaskan of the Century. This decorated World War II pilot was a warrior and a true champion of Alaska,” Palin said in a statement.
Stevens earned the nickname “Uncle Ted” and a reputation as one of the most effective of all pork-barrel lawmakers, a senator who funneled billions of federal dollars to his home state.
His footprint can be seen all over Alaska. In Anchorage, where most people fly into the Alaska, a large sign proclaims “Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.”
It’s amazing that anyone survived the crash. We hope those who survived have full recoveries. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims. So sad.