Ex-NASA chief among survivors

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2010

JUNEAU - A single-engine plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens crashed into a remote Alaska mountainside, killing the state's most beloved political figure and four others and stranding the survivors on brush-and-rock-covered slopes overnight until rescuers could reach them.

Volunteers discovered the wreckage late Monday and tended to the injured, including Stevens' fishing buddy, ex-NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, until help could arrive Tuesday.

Investigators arrived late Tuesday at the crash site outside Dillingham, located on Bristol Bay about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but the flights at Dillingham are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said the plane, a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3T registered to Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., took off at 2 p.m. Monday from a GCI corporate site on Lake Nerka, heading to the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik.

He said the plane was flying by visual flight rules, and was not required to file a flight plan.

National Weather Service data show that weather conditions deteriorated between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Monday - the approximate time the FAA said the plane took off. Visibility at Dillingham, the nearest observation area, was about 10 miles with overcast skies at 1:49 p.m.; it was 3 miles by 2:22, with light rain, fog and mist reported.

Volunteer pilots were dispatched around 7 p.m. after the plane was overdue at its destination. They came upon the wreckage about a half hour later, authorities said.

The weather soon took a turn for the worse, with heavy fog, clouds and rain blanketing the area and making it impossible for rescuers to arrive until after daybreak. O'Keefe, his son and two others were flown to the hospital. The other survivors are William "Willy" Phillips, Jr., 13, no hometown given; and Jim Morhard, of Alexandria, Va. The O'Keefes had broken bones and other injuries, former NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said.

Alaska State Troopers identified the victims as Stevens; pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River; William "Bill" Phillips, Sr., no age or hometown given; Dana Tindall, 48, of Anchorage; and Corey Tindall, 16, of Anchorage.

Stevens, 86, and O'Keefe, 54, are fishing buddies who had been planning a trip near where the float plane crashed.

Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Guy Hayes offered no details about the survivors' conditions or their identities.

The bodies of Stevens and the other four victims remained at the scene Tuesday, investigators said.

O'Keefe was NASA administrator for three tumultuous years. He was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget when President George W. Bush asked him in late 2001 to head NASA and help bring soaring space station costs under control.

But budget-cutting became secondary when the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003.

O'Keefe's most controversial action at NASA was when he decided to cancel one last repair mission by astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope. He said the mission was too risky. His successor overturned the decision. The Hubble mission was carried out last year.

O'Keefe left NASA in 2005 to become chancellor of Louisiana State University. He is now the CEO of defense contractor EADS North America and oversees the bid for the hotly contested Air Force refueling jet contract.

The contract competition, which pits EADS against rival plane maker Boeing Co., is for a piece of what could eventually be $100 billion worth of work replacing the military's fleet of aging tankers.

The Stevens crash is the latest in a long line of aviation accidents to claim political figures over the years in the U.S., including Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz in 1991, South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson in 1993, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000 and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002.

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.

In a similar accident by another GCI-owned plane, an amphibious, float-equipped Havilland plane flipped after landing on Lake Nerka in 2002. The pilot drowned and a passenger was injured. The plane was landing on the lake in front of the lodge when the accident occurred.

• Associated Press writers Mark Thiessen and Mary Pemberton in Anchorage, Alaska, and Pauline Jelinek, Matt Apuzzo, Mike Schneider and Natasha Metzler in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.



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