DILLINGHAM, Alaska — Former Sen. Ted Stevens lay dead in the mangled fuselage of the plane. A 13-year-old boy escaped death but his father died a few feet away. Medical workers spent the miserable night tending to survivors’ broken bones amid a huge slick of fuel that coated a muddy mountainside.
The gruesome details of the plane crash that killed Stevens and four others emerged as investigators tried to figure out how the float plane crashed into a mountain during a fishing trip. Three teenagers and their parents were on the plane, including the former head of NASA.
Authorities were studying weather patterns to understand if overcast skies, rain and gusty winds played a role in a crash that claimed the life of the most revered politician in Alaska history.
The Republican was remembered as a towering political figure who brought billions of dollars to the state during his 40 years in the Senate – a career that ended amid a corruption trial in 2008. The case was later tossed out.
A pilot who was one of the first to arrive at the scene described a horrific scene of airplane wreckage, fuel, rainy weather, dead bodies and frightened survivors.
As he helped shuttle a doctor and two EMTs to the scene about three hours after the crash, Tom Tucker 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.
“The front of the aircraft was gone,” Tucker said. “He was just sitting in the chair.”
He and 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.”
Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis, one of the first National Guardsmen to reach the crash site, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that the waders helped the injured by acting “as sort of a survival-type blanket,” keeping body heat in and water out.
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.
The federal investigation is still in its early stages, and it’s too early to say what caused the crash, Hersman said.
“We’re certainly looking at weather, but everything’s on the table right now and we haven’t ruled anything out,” Hersman told CNN on Wednesday morning. She said investigators had not yet been able to talk to the crash survivors.
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.
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.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the DeHavilland DHC-3T was registered to Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company.
The victims were identified as Stevens; pilot Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River; William “Bill” Phillips Sr.; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with GCI; and her 16-year-old daughter Corey Tindall.
The four survivors were former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe and his teenage son; William “Willy” Phillips Jr., 13; and Jim Morhard, of Alexandria, Va. They were taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage with “varying degrees of injuries,” Alaska State Troopers said on Tuesday.
Former NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said O’Keefe, 54, and his son had broken bones and other injuries.
Sean O’Keefe was listed in critical condition Wednesday. His son, Kevin O’Keefe, and Morhard were listed in serious condition. The hospital said the younger Phillips was not listed in its directory, and it wasn’t immediately clear where he was.
Stevens and O’Keefe were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Republican lawmaker led for several years. Stevens became a mentor to the younger O’Keefe and they remained close friends.
Morhard and the elder Phillips also worked with Stevens in Washington. Morhard went on to found a Washington lobbying firm. Phillips was also a lobbyist.
Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are not accessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air to reach their destinations.
“It’s just a reality of Alaska life and unfortunately it caught up with him,” Stevens family spokesman Mitch Rose said on NBC’s “Today.”
Stevens was one of two survivors in a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and several others.
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.
Nina Corbett, co-owner of the Windmill Grille in Dillingham, was saddened by the loss of Stevens.
“We’re such a youthful state,” she said Tuesday night while taking a break from serving pizza, hot sandwiches, tap beer and wine from a box to visiting fishermen in the restaurant along the road to the town’s airport.
“He’s the only senator we’ve ever known.”