Authorities found four bodies inside the wreckage of a small plane Wednesday on a rugged hillside in northwestern Montana, bringing a tragic end to a 2½-day search for a group of friends who went out for an afternoon sightseeing trip and never returned.
Family members awaiting word in Moiese, headquarters of the National Bison Range, broke down upon hearing of the deaths of pilot and recent University of Montana graduate Sonny Kless, law student Brian Williams and newspaper reporters Erika Hoefer and Melissa Weaver.
"It's a terrible, terrible loss for all the families," said Michelle Gentry, Kless' aunt. "It's just a tragedy. I think (Kless) was out doing something he loved to do."
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopter discovered a plane matching the description of the missing 1968 Piper Arrow on Wednesday afternoon in the steep, densely wooded hillside about 80 miles south of Kalispell, just inside the Sanders County line. It was not far from the plane's last known location.
An Air Force helicopter flew to the crash site near Revais Creek a couple of miles south of the Flathead River outside the bison range. Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman rappelled from the helicopter down to the rocky terrain to verify what the searchers already suspected.
"We did confirm it was the plane that we were looking for, and we also confirmed there were four deceased people in the plane," Wrightsman said. "Because of the ruggedness of the area, you almost had be right over top to see it."
The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified and will be taking over the investigation, and the Federal Aviation Administration also has been contacted, Wrightsman said.
Authorities were trying to come up with a plan to remove the bodies from the crash site, said Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman Carey Cooley.
Officials didn't believe they would be able to use a helicopter basket to aid in the recovery because of the terrain, so they plan to hike in Thursday, Cooley said.
The four sightseers took off Sunday from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park airspace and then headed south across Flathead Lake. Radar data last tracked them close to where the wreckage was found.
Kless' mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her 25-year-old son got his pilot's license about a year ago and had flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.
Thirty of Kless' 100 hours of flight time were in the Piper Arrow, which he had rented Sunday, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.
A roommate notified authorities when Weaver didn't return or call. The search got under way Monday, at first concentrating in the Flathead Valley, then shifting south after officials analyzed data from radar and cell phone towers.
The search involved more than 100 people using aircraft, boats, horses and all-terrain vehicles. Several relatives and friends of the missing joined the effort.
Weaver, 23, was from Billings. Hoefer, 27, was from Beloit, Wis. Both started reporting for the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell at the end of last year.
"Melissa and Erika were both very important parts of our newsroom," said Rick Weaver, publisher of the Daily Inter Lake. "A newsroom is often like a big family, and they were part of that. They are going to be missed."
Kless had been planning to teach English in Asia this year. Williams attended law school at the University of Montana.
AP reporter Matt Volz contributed to this report from Helena, Mont.