ANCHORAGE - The engines purred, pulling the commuter airplane through a blowing storm as it flew a holding pattern Thursday evening, waiting to touch down in Nome.
Outside her window, the only thing Heidi Graber could see was a vast white expanse. Where did the sky end and the earth begin?
A moment later, with her back broken in three spots and her pelvis fractured, she, the pilot and four others aboard had the answer.
"It was just completely out of nowhere - ran straight into the side of a mountain," Graber said by telephone from a Nome hospital bed. The 34-year-old school counselor from Teller who was flying into Nome to catch a connection to Anchorage for vacation said she was the most seriously injured in the crash about eight miles northeast of Nome.
The aircraft, a Piper PA-31-350 operated by Frontier Flying Service, had hit hard on the slope of Newton Peak. Despite the violence of the collision and the sudden stop, all aboard survived.
The pilot, Harland Hannon, last made contact with control in Nome at roughly 6:20 p.m., when he advised that flight 8218 was inbound and, because of the deteriorating weather, requested to be put in a holding pattern to land in turn.
When the flight wasn't heard from again, Alaska State Troopers and Nome Volunteer Fire Department Search and Rescue began a search.
Hannon could not be reached for comment Friday, but National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson, who was just beginning his investigation, caught up with the pilot while he was on a layover in Anchorage, on his way to Fairbanks.
During a brief interview, Hannon told Johnson he left Brevig Mission and initially reached about 5,500 feet, Johnson said. The flight to Nome is short, perhaps only a half-hour. But in that time, the weather thickened and the ceiling lowered, Johnson said. Soon Hannon was facing flat light and a whiteout, he said.
Alerted by an emergency locator beacon on the airplane, the small army of searchers faced fast-worsening conditions, which forced an Evergreen Aviation helicopter to turn back from the search. It took nearly three hours to find the wreckage.
Up on the mountain, the survivors saw a couple of lights glimmering in the distance: two snowmachines drifting through the dark. The stranded people shined flashlights down the slope. But it wasn't until a passenger doused clothes in fuel and lit them that they caught someone's attention, Graber said.
Perhaps two miles away, in the shadow of the mountain, Dexter resident David Olsen was at home watching the search unfold when he saw a light begin flickering beyond the search teams.
"We were just watching because the search teams were on the other side of the river, and when we spotted it I gave search and rescue a call," Olsen said.
It was about 8:50 p.m. when searchers got the call, and following the light, searchers reached the aircraft to find everyone alive, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters.
And pretty happy to see them.
"I was so grateful," Graber said. "And they were all so good. They really took good care of us."
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