Searchers find one body, helicopter debris

New findings indicate medical craft may have crashed in fjord leading to Whittier

Posted: Monday, December 10, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A body and debris found near Whittier indicate a missing medical helicopter may have crashed in the fjord leading to that Prince William Sound community.

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A search helicopter Saturday found the body of John Stumpff, 47, a flight nurse, on the north shore of Passage Canal, about 2.5 miles across the fjord from Whittier.

The same crew spotted a helicopter door washed ashore about a mile east of where Stumpff's body was found.

On Sunday morning, searchers found medical equipment in the same general location.

Drift patterns based on winds, tides and waves in Passage Canal make it a strong possibility that the Eurocopter BK 117 crashed there and that the body and the debris drifted west, said Lt. Col. Tom Bolin of the Alaska Air National Guard.

"All indications are that it went in the water," Bolin said.

Stumpff was one of three crew members, along with pilot Lance Brabham, 42, and paramedic Cameron Carter, 25, on a LifeGuard Alaska helicopter that disappeared in blowing snow a week ago on a flight from Cordova to Anchorage. Also on board was a patient, Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova.

The trip from Cordova to Anchorage is about 150 miles by air and usually takes about 90 minutes. Providence Alaska Medical Center, which leases the helicopter and operates the LifeGuard Alaska air ambulance service, reported the aircraft overdue after the crew failed to report position updates.

The helicopter's last transmission came at about 5 p.m. Dec. 3 from near Ester Island, 20 miles from Whittier. Its usual flight path would have led the helicopter down Passage Canal, past Whittier and then over Portage Pass to Anchorage.

The shoreline where Stumpff's body and the debris were found had been searched in part because foul weather prevented effective searching of higher elevations.

"Those areas were gone over extensively," Bolin said of the shoreline, and it's likely the body washed ashore after earlier searches.

Stumpff's body was found on a rocky beach. Even with pockets of beach, the shoreline terrain rises quickly into cliffs. Bolin described it as a "canyon."

Last week, the search covered wide areas of the region as rescue coordinators speculated that the missing helicopter had switched to an alternative route because of bad weather.

The waters off Ester Island look like a seven-way traffic stop with various channels coming together.

The recovered door was a rear helicopter door made of metal and plastic glass that could have been pushed by the water. The Coast Guard helped determine likely drift patterns based on the weather and said the likely explanation for the debris so far down Passage Canal was that the crash occurred within the 12-mile fjord. But Bolin emphasized that was speculation.

"This is not an exact science," he said.

It will, however, refine future searches. Bolin said helicopter crews and good Samaritan vessels will concentrate on Passage Canal.

An autopsy on Stumpff's body will determine how long it was in the water. That will be one factor in deciding whether the search will be designated a recovery effort rather than a rescue effort. If that happens, Alaska State Troopers will coordinate searches.

The missing helicopter was one of two leased from Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska Inc., which provides the pilots and maintenance. Flight crew members lived in Kenai Peninsula communities.

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