August 13th, 2010
01:43 AM ET

'How did anyone survive that?'

Five people died in the plane crash, including former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Editor's note: CNN All-Platform Journalist Patrick Oppmann visited the site of the Alaska plane crash that killed five people earlier this week, including former Sen. Ted Stevens. Here is his account of what he saw.

High over the Muklung Hills, I spot the broken plane below me.

It was the float plane that had crashed into the side of the hills injuring four people and killing five others, including former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

I arrived in Dillingham, Alaska, the day that a dicey rescue mission pulled the crash victims off the mountain. That same day I tracked down Eric Shade, one of the pilots who helped find the plane after it went missing.

It had been a long day for Shade but he agreed to get out of bed to do an interview with me. Wearing a leather bomber jacket over a T-shirt with a Superman insignia on it, Shade told me when he first saw the crash site he didn't think anyone could have survived.

Two days later, with Shade again behind the controls of his plane, he flew me over the crash site, and I saw what he meant. The plane had crashed about 1,000 feet up a mountain that rises some 2,300 feet. Leading up to the bright red, broken plane was a long, muddy gash in what was an otherwise green hillside.

The gash marked where the plane had traveled up the slope, knocking down trees and tearing up rock after crashing into the mountainside. How did anyone survive that?

"It's like a tornado - one person lives and the person next to them dies and you don't know why," said Tom Tucker, a local helicopter pilot who aided in the rescue efforts.

Tucker ferried EMTs and a doctor to the crash site and walked down to the shattered plane from the ledge he put his chopper down on. It was a 45-minute round-trip nightmare hike in the dark and mud, Tucker told me.

"You would take one step forward and three steps back," he said.

In his hanger, while he works on a plane, Tucker is cool to the notion that he did anything heroic. When I ask how he managed to make three trips and each time set his helicopter down safely in the middle of the night on a remote hillside, he responds, "I turned on the lights."

Tucker says the heroes are the doctor and EMTs who spent the night tending to injured survivors of the crash. I go to speak to those EMTs, who are part of Dillingham's Volunteer Fire Department, at their weekly meeting. As I walk into the firehouse, a dozen burly men sit around in folding chairs. A CPR dummy lies on a gurney in the corner.

Many of the men work other jobs and some had just come home for dinner when their phones rang to let them know they were needed for a dangerous rescue mission.

They thank me for coming and with tired faces say they still need to deal with what they saw at the crash site before they can tell their stories.

As Shade flies me over the site, I think about how difficult it would have been for those firefighters to reach this horrible scene and how difficult it was for pilots like Shade to find it.

The day of the crash a heavy mist covered the hills, which almost kept rescuers from spotting the wrecked plane. Deep in the Alaskan bush, it is not the place you want to be hurt and alone. As we double back to get another look , a rainstorm blows in and suddenly the plane is gone.

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Filed under: Air travel • Alaska
soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Carmen

    When its your time to go your gonna go so be ready, its was not eveybody one that planes time to go, maybe just a wake up call, they survied because GOD has other plans for them..and GOD is in control weather you wanna believ or not!

    August 13, 2010 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      That'll be your little secret. Your "GOD" controlls only you.

      August 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. S Callahan

    Not only God's will, but God's hand......he will use Mr. O'Keefe for his purposes.....Sean now knows there IS a God in Heaven....despite the other dellusions that have been presented to him.....Praying for Sean , his son, and the others. Thank You Lord for saving them.

    August 13, 2010 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  3. Kickin Tin

    All you guys are speculating, let’s let the professionals do their jobs shall we? On the surface it looks like a classic CFIT. They took off in bad very low weather, and hit a hill. By the way I knew the pilot.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • CT

      CFIT yes but why? GPS with terrain data would have warned in advance. IMC mountain flying is more than I would take on. Fully loaded a/c and leeward downdraft perhaps?

      August 13, 2010 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  4. tucsonram

    I would like to know how big those "trees" were. They look more like bushes to me, except for the one directly in front of fuselage. That one is probably what caused the plane to stop it's forward motion. That tree is probably what caused the deaths. You know what people say about falling....it's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. elivs

    I think you should all cal the NTSB and demand jobs as crash investigators. It's simply astounding how much you've ascertained from one grainy photo.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
  6. GrummanFlyer

    So let's see... it's IMC conditions...he was flying with *no* IFR flight plan but he's done it 1000 times before right? Probably no obstacle departure procedures either. I wonder if there was a GPS on board?...one would hope so. So was he deviating to avoid IMC or did he get disoriented?...disorientation happens fast in the soup. Or ...was it a leeward-side downslope draft that got him...like Fossett? Hmmm...we may never know.

    August 13, 2010 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      No GPS avionics that I could determine except the fancy GPS ELT that failed to engage. Guess just radar, no ADS-B. Anyway when flying VFR, while trying to fly under the weather, probably would not have made that much of a difference.
      Pilots regulary flying in Alaska become (unintentionally)more bolder over the years IMO, otherwise too many canceled trips. His luck just ran out.

      August 13, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. upslims

    I blame Bush for that crash

    August 13, 2010 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  8. Duder

    Stevens was already dead and so were the people who knew about his murder. Bush couldn't let Stevens live because of what he knew. They crash landed the bodies into the mountain with a remotely operated aircraft and choppered in the remaining individuals to put the finishing touches on the story. That's how they "survived". The truth must be told!

    August 13, 2010 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jackie

    Either way, I feel for the rescuers, the ones who say they need to deal with what they saw before they tell their stories. Those folks are always the heroes in any situation because they have to deal with the cleanup. Godspeed to the survivors on their recovery.

    August 13, 2010 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  10. skd

    "One person lives and the person next to them dies and you don't know why"--is a humbling experience and a constant reminder that we are not in absolute control of everything. In day to day life we easily tend to downplay this.

    August 13, 2010 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. reaper

    Some people live, others survive.
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUkcjAtzzcI&w=640&h=360]

    August 13, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Heribeto Jenkins

    only way i'd drink a beer ever, EVER, is if you'd throw in some ice with it

    August 13, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  13. CT

    The plane seems to be intact for most part. There is a good chance for survivors actually here. As they sai,d it depends on where the person takes the hit – the next person could survice with just a few scratches. Its true of even car accidents.

    August 13, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
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