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 along with 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.
“He is one of the real giants,” said Paul Brown, a consultant who was having lunch at an outdoor cafe in Anchorage. “He dedicated his life to this state.”
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. The FAA had previously said the plane took off between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.
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.
He said the survivors were all in relatively good condition. It was rainy and cold, and he believes their heavy duty fishing waders protected them 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.”