Two tires found today on a Douglas Island beach were identified by a mechanic as belonging to a plane missing since Wednesday with two Juneau men aboard.
"The boat from Station Juneau found two (unmounted) tires by Middle Point on the back side of Douglas Island," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Darrell Wilson early this afternoon. "A mechanic who worked on the plane is pretty confident they're from the plane piloted by Steve Zeckser."
The tires were found about a mile apart, Wilson said. "We also found some material that is believed to be from a wing. All searchers will now converge on that area and use infrared cameras to scan for human beings in the water and on the shore," he said.
Middle Point is on the shore of Stephens Passage, nine miles southwest of downtown Juneau.
Steve Zeckser, a U.S. Forest Service employee, and Edgar "Bear" Burch, a certified flight instructor, were reported missing shortly before 3 p.m. Wednesday. Burch, an employee of Juneau Flight School, was accompanying Zeckser on his biannual flight review.
The two planned to fly from the Juneau Airport to Young Bay, 12 miles to the southeast on Admiralty Island, and return to Juneau. When they did not return on schedule, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Forest Service and the Civil Air Patrol were alerted and began searching.
Reports of an oil slick in Favorite Channel, north of Douglas Island, were discounted as having any connection to the missing plane.
A separate sheen was reported near Lena Point on Thursday by a Haines Airways plane on a regular flight to Haines.
"Searchers looked at that and didn't find anything else," Wilson said. "The sheen could have come from anything, including an old shipwreck there" that periodically releases oily bubbles of material from its hull.
Eric Dillon, whose mother is Edgar Burch's cousin, described him as an individualistic man who wore short pants even in Juneau's November cold, often in combination with an airborne ranger's hat.
Burch is "a man who always wanted to get the most out of life. It was never one thing; it was sailing, flying and learning to play the guitar," Dillon said. "And this after retiring from being a sheriff in Colorado, and that after retiring from a career in the military, which included three tours in Vietnam."
Burch "has a charisma and a zest for life that is contagious. If Ed is truly gone, the world will be a lesser place for it," Dillon said.
Burch and his wife, a nurse, lived on a boat for several years, said a friend, Warren Smith of Fairbanks, who served in Vietnam with him in the early 1970s. They moved to Juneau about a year and a half ago, Smith said.
Steve Zeckser, 51, has worked for the Forest Service for 21 years, said regional spokesman Lynn Humphrey. Zeckser formerly was a contracting officer. His current position is director of acquisitions management.
"He is a wonderful, easy-going guy, wonderful to be around, always smiling," Humphrey said.
Zeckser was piloting a single-engine white and red Bellanca Scout with the identification number 7100C.
Conditions for survival have been reasonably good for people stranded on land. Since noon Wednesday in the greater Juneau area, the low has been 32 degrees. Precipitation has been 0.06 inch, with a trace of snow, according to the National Weather Service.
"I'm hoping and pray that this is just another adventure for Ed, that he will regale me with the tale of surviving the plane crash and staying alive until help arrived. He's a very resourceful guy. If anyone can, it's Ed," Dillon said.
There were no radio calls for help, according to Wendell Wassman of Juneau Flight Service Station. "To the best of my knowledge, the last radio contact was when Zeckser took off," Wassman said.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneau empire.com.
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