Image: Wreckage of plane that carried former Sen. Ted Stevens
Alaska State Police via AP
The wreckage of an amphibious plane lies on a remote Alaska mountainside during a fishing trip, killing former Sen. Ted Stevens and four others.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/11/2010 9:31:40 PM ET 2010-08-12T01:31:40

A pilot who saw the wreckage of the amphibious plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens and his fishing companions remembers thinking as he looked down: No one could have survived.

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

"It surprised me because I didn't think it was survivable," said Eric Shade, 48, owner of Shannon's Air Taxi.

The discovery set in a motion a frantic rescue effort that culminated when National Guardsmen had the four dazed survivors, suffering from broken bones and other injuries, airlifted off the mountain. Five others, including the state's most revered politician, were dead.

Within hours, a fishing trip that Stevens and his friends have made for years to a southwest Alaska lodge — sometimes drawing criticism for hosting lobbyists and lawmakers there to discuss government issues — had ended in tragedy and left family searching for answers.

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The cause of the crash was being investigated on Wednesday, but officials said a technology that Stevens had long pushed to improve air safety in Alaska wasn't install in the downed plane. It was unclear whether the instruments would've prevented the crash Monday night.

Several medical volunteers who scrambled up the boulder-strewn slopes to the crash site found survivors trapped inside the fuselage, with one still strapped into the co-pilot seat. Rescuers had to cut alders to reach survivors, and then ripped open the plane to get them out.

"They didn't do too much talking with us," said Alaska Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis, one of the rescuers lowered onto the mountain from a helicopter. "If they did talk, they were asking for pain medication, and we helped them with that."

Stevens, 86, had close ties to everyone on the plane, including Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company that owned the plane, and the lodge where the passengers were staying.

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

GCI frequently hosted high-profile guests, politicians and regulators at the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik for fishing trips, drawing scrutiny from Alaska lawmakers over whether the expeditions violated ethics rules.

At a hearing, lawmakers grilled GCI executive Dana Tindall, who died in the crash, about the trips.

Tindall testified that Stevens and William "Bill" Phillips Sr., who died in the wreck, once arranged for a staff member to travel to the lodge to learn about the telecommunications world as GCI looked to expand its business.

"We entertain business associates. We entertain — there have been FCC commissioners out there. And there have been members of the United States Congress out there," Tindall told lawmakers.

Stevens and ex-NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who was also on the plane and survived, were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee led by the GOP lawmaker. Stevens became a mentor to him.

Phillips and Jim Morhard, who survived the crash, also worked with him in Washington. Morhard founded a lobbying firm. 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 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, authorities said.

A 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.

Tom Tucker, who helped shuttle the medical workers to the scene, described seeing a survivor still strapped in the front seat with the nose of the plane disintegrated. His head was cut, and his legs appeared to be broken.

Image: A DeHavilland DHC-3T with tail number N455A crashed in Alaska
John Olafson  /  AP file
This 2005 photo released by John Olafson shows an aircraft with tail number N455A, leaving Vernon, British Columbia, and headed to Alaska. The NTSB says a DeHavilland DHC-3T with the same tail number was the one that crashed Monday night.

"The front of the aircraft was gone," Tucker said. "He was just sitting in the chair."

He and the other responders made a tarp tent over the missing cockpit to keep him dry. It was rainy and cold, and he believes the passengers' heavy duty waders protected them when they went into shock. Temperatures ranged from about 48 degrees to 50 degrees overnight at Dillingham.

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

Davis and Technical Sgt. Kristofer Abel, the first two National Guardsmen to respond to the accident, arrived at the site around 12 hours after crash.

Abel said the fuselage of the plane was "surprisingly intact" when they arrived. He described the ensuing rescue as labor and time intensive because of the slope of the plane and slipperiness inside the cockpit.

Both rescuers praised the work of a doctor and two emergency medical technicians who had 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 fuel wafting through the air.

"It would have taken us twice the time to do what we did, so those guys really deserve a big thanks," Davis said on the "TODAY" show on Wednesday.

Davis and Abel said the passengers were all conscious when they arrived but that they did not talk too much about the accident with the four survivors, communicating with the volunteers who had been with the survivors overnight.

The flights at Dillingham, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage, are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather.

Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are inaccessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt in June credited the technology — a surveillance system intended in part to help pilots have a greater sense of awareness when they're nearing bad weather — with "making a real difference" in air safety in Alaska.

The plane Stevens was on was not outfitted with that technology, Jim LaBelle, regional director for the NTSB, told The Associated Press. He declined further comment, deferring to the investigative team.

The technology, hailed by the FAA as "the future of air traffic control," is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B. It's meant to help replace the radar that pilots and controllers now rely on with GPS technology.

What this means for pilots is an ability to see on cockpit displays weather information and location of other aircraft in the area.

The system can cost from $7,600 to $10,900 to equip a general aviation aircraft, FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. Plans currently call for all aircraft, flying within certain controlled air space, to be equipped with the technology by 2020, she said.

Alaska was one of the first test sites for the program. In June, FAA said that, under the Capstone project, it has equipped "hundreds of general aviation aircraft" in southeast Alaska with ADS-B avionics and installed related infrastructure on the ground.

The other people who died are: pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River; and Tindall's 16-year-old daughter, Corey. Authorities said autopsies were performed on all five victims and a toxicology screen was performed on the pilot, both standard procedures. Results weren't immediately available.

In addition to O'Keefe, his son Kevin and Morhard, the other survivor was Phillips' son, William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13. He was in good condition.

Paul Pastorek, who's acting as a spokesman for the O'Keefe family, said in a statement Wednesday that the injuries to O'Keefe and his son don't appear life-threatening, "and we are confident they will have a full recovery." Morhard was listed in serious condition.

Stevens was a legend in his home state, where he was known as "Uncle Ted." The wiry octogenarian was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. He brought billions of federal dollars home for projects.

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: First responders describe Alaska crash site

Interactive: Fatal crash

Photos: Ted Stevens 1923 - 2010

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  1. In this 1973 photo, President Gerald Ford stands beside Ted Stevens at Stevens' 50th birthday in Anchorage, Alaska. Stevens, an uncompromising advocate for Alaska for four decades who delivered scores of expensive projects to one of the nation's most sparsely populated states, died in a plane crash on Monday, Aug. 9, at the age of 86. Family spokesman Mitch Rose says Stevens was among the victims of a crash outside Dillingham, Alaska about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. (The Anchorage Daily News) / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Authorities examine the wreckage of a plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed Sen. Ted Stevens' first wife, Ann in December of 1978. (The Anchorage Daily News / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Members of the Senate Republican leadership depart a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, held in light of an all night session to pass a bill at midnight on Dec. 17, 1982. From left are Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Sen. Paul Laxalt, R- Nev. and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah. (John Duricka / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. In this undated photo, Sen. Ted Stevens, left, and President Jimmy Carter discuss the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. (The Anchorage Daily News / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. President Ronald Reagan is flanked by Congressional leaders during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington on Jan. 25, 1984. From left are, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill; Chief of Staff James Baker, partly obscured; Attorney General Nominee Edwin Meese; President Reagan; Majority Leader Howard Baker; and Majority Whip Ted Stevens of Alaska. (Barry Thumma / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, thanks the Alaska Native people after giving his congressional report to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage, Alaska on . Oct. 28, 2004. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska speaks to reporters in the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18, 2008. Former US Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the longest-ever serving Republican in the chamber, was confirmed to have died in the crash of a small plane in Alaska according to a friend of the family. Five of the nine people on board died as the plane went down on August 9. (Matthew Cavanaugh / EPA file) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens greets supporters during a welcome home rally in Anchorage, Alaska on Oct. 29, 2008. (Al Grillo / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens stands with his daughters, from left, Beth Stevens, Lily Stevens and Susan Covich as he leaves federal court in Washington on April 7, 2009. (Susan Walsh / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
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