Plane crash investigators shift focus to interviewing survivors

Posted: Friday, August 13, 2010

JUNEAU - Federal investigators have finished much of their work at the site of the Alaska plane crash that killed former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and four others, and have shifted focus to interviewing survivors and hoisting the wreckage from a steep mountainside.

Byron Orth / The Associated Press
Byron Orth / The Associated Press

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the focus now turns to interviews; tightening the timeline for details on the plane's departure, the realization it was missing, and search and rescue activities; and bringing the wrecked plane to a hangar for further inspection.

Plenty of unanswered questions remain, with investigators receiving conflicting information as to when the float plane left a corporate-owned lodge for a fishing camp and when the wreckage was discovered.

Hersman said some of that may be due to people's memories and to the "fog of an accident." Investigators hoped interviews with those involved - including with the four survivors - would help fill in the blanks. They also requested tapes from the Federal Aviation Administration to help nail down the search and discovery time, and they were looking to see if there were any weather cameras or pilots who were flying in the area to help shed light on conditions.

Had the plane taken the most direct route from the lodge to the camp, the flight would have lasted about 15 minutes, Hersman said. It's still not clear, though, whether that was the route taken. Departure times gleaned so far by investigators have differed by about an hour, as has the timing of the wreckage discovery.

No emergency beacon went off, Hersman said, adding that investigators were looking at whether the plane had been equipped with that technology.

At midday Thursday, Hersman estimated interviews had been conducted with 10 to 15 people, but that number didn't include those who could provide especially critical information - the four survivors. Interviews also had not been done with those at the fish camp or with everyone who was at the lodge, Hersman said. Investigators also were still trying to speak with officials from General Communications Inc., the phone and Internet company that owned the lodge and to which the plane was registered, she said.

A doctor who is married to the head of GCI was among the first to arrive at the scene of the crash, company officials said Thursday.

Anchorage-based pediatrician Dani Bowman was at the GCI lodge when the crash occurred and was flown to a nearby air strip by her husband, GCI president Ron Duncan, in his float plane.

"As soon as Dani knew there were survivors, she wanted to get to the scene to provide medical attention," Duncan, a private pilot, said in a statement.

A helicopter flew Bowman and other responders to the wreckage.

Bowman, who is not commenting further, practices at the Alaska Native Medical Center and specializes in pediatrics intensive care, GCI officials said.

Authorities tried to speak with survivors Wednesday and Thursday, but they weren't ready, Hersman said.

On Thursday, an Anchorage hospital listed the condition of two of the survivors, Kevin O'Keefe and Jim Morhard, as fair, and William "Willy" Phillips Jr., whose father was killed, as good. Former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, Kevin O'Keefe's father, remained in critical condition.

Hersman said there had been upgrades to the 1957 model plane and investigators reported finding a "nicely equipped" cockpit, though the extent of those upgrades wasn't immediately clear.

Authorities said the plane lacked a technology Stevens had championed to improve air safety in Alaska, which is intended to allow pilots to see cockpit displays, concise weather information and location of other aircraft in the area.

But Hersman cautioned against any rush to judgment on whether technology of some kind could have prevented the crash, noting that investigators themselves had reached no conclusions on the accident's cause.

It was unlikely investigators from the NTSB team out of Washington would return to the site of Monday's crash, which occurred in rugged, mountainous terrain about 20 miles north of Dillingham, but the work is far from done, Hersman said. Besides the interviews, plans also call for using a heavy-lift helicopter to take the wreckage to a hangar in Dillingham for further inspection. That process could take a day or so.

Meanwhile, Stevens' family said his funeral has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday at Anchorage Baptist Temple, with a reception to follow. A separate memorial will take place Tuesday, when Stevens will lie in repose at All Saints Episcopal Church in Anchorage.

Both events will be open to the public.



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