Thursday, Dec 08, 2016
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Stevens had bond with all on doomed flight

DILLINGHAM, Alaska - One of the pilots who saw the wreckage of the plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens, his companions, and their families remembers thinking: No one could've survived.

Then, he heard another pilot on the radio: A hand was waving for help from a window of the aircraft.

"It surprised me," said Eric Shade of Shannon's Air Taxi.

Within hours, a trip Mr. Stevens and his friends made for years to a southwest Alaska lodge ended with five dead, including the state's most revered politician, and four survivors.

The cause was being investigated Wednesday, but officials said technology Mr. Stevens long had pushed for in Alaska - a surveillance system aimed at giving pilots a greater sense of awareness when they're nearing bad weather - wasn't installed in the downed plane. It was unclear whether the instruments would have prevented Monday's crash.

Medical volunteers who scrambled up the muddy, boulder-strewn slopes found the survivors trapped inside the fuselage, with one strapped in the co-pilot seat, and five dead nearby.

Mr. Stevens, 86, had close ties to everyone on the plane; to the plane's owner - General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company based in Anchorage - and to the lodge where the passengers were to stay.

"These were old friends who stayed in touch and loved him," Mr. Stevens' friend Russ Withers said.

GCI often hosted high-profile guests at the Agulowak Lodge for fishing trips, drawing scrutiny from Alaska lawmakers over whether the expeditions violated ethics rules.

Mr. Stevens and ex-NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who survived the crash, were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who

worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee led by the GOP lawmaker. Mr. Stevens became a mentor to Mr. O'Keefe.

William Phillips, Sr., who died in the wreck, and Jim Morhard, who survived, also worked with Mr. Stevens. Mr. Morhard founded a lobbying firm; Mr. Phillips was a lobbyist.

Authorities said the group boarded the 1957 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 camp at 6 p.m. to ask when the party would arrive for dinner, only to be told the group never showed. Civilian aircraft were dispatched, and pilots quickly spotted the wreckage a few miles from the lodge.

A doctor and emergency medical technicians were sent to the area and hiked to the wreckage as fog and rain blanketed the area and nightfall set in, barring rescuers from the scene until daybreak.

Tom Tucker, who helped shuttle medical workers to the site, described seeing a survivor strapped in the front seat, the nose of the plane disintegrated. His head was cut; his legs looked broken. "The front of the aircraft was gone," Mr. Tucker said. "He was just sitting in the chair."

Mr. Tucker and other responders made a tarp tent to keep him dry. It was rainy and cold, and he believes passengers' heavy waders protected them by keeping body heat in and moisture out. Temperatures ranged from about 48 to 50 degrees overnight.

"These individuals were cold. We covered them up with blankets and made them as comfortable as we could," he said.

Responders found Mr. Stevens dead in the fuselage. William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13, escaped death, but his father died a few feet away. Rescue crews spent the night tending to survivors amid a huge fuel slick that coated the mountainside.

The other people who died are pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River, GCI executive Dana Tindall, and Ms. Tindall's daughter, Corey, 16.

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