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. Kelly Eddy

    It appears as if it was a deliberate ditch attempt, a controlled landing, as opposed to a "crash". That's why some survived. Give it up to the pilot... On a 40 degree slope a "crash" I don't believe would have left a gash that long. The pilot was trying to minimize the impact.

    August 13, 2010 at 2:39 am | Report abuse |
    • pilot

      Right before you are about to hit a mountain, you always pull up. Nobody would try to maximize it.

      August 13, 2010 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Flyer

      Yeah, what Pilot said. Definitely wasn't a ditch, he pulled up. You bible thumpers scare me.

      August 13, 2010 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Educated

      flyer, where does the post you are replying to mention anything about God? You people that blame everything on "Bible Thumpers" as you call them, really scare the rest of us!

      August 13, 2010 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Kelly Eddy

      As long as the pilot was conscious, of course. And it appears he was. Where the heck did the Bible reference come from? Strange...

      August 13, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • reader

      If you read more of the posts you will see what 'Flyer' is referring to with the bible thumper reference.

      August 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • GodsGadfly

      I don't know about "Bible Thumpers," and I don't know why you find miracles scary, however, there were several miraculous elements to the crash–including the fact that the plane, after the crash, was surrounded by a lake of leaked fuel, and the plane itself was burning, but the fuel never ignited.

      My mother in law knows one of the survivors. Several of the passengers were Catholic, and they said three Rosaries while the plane was going down and they were waiting for rescue. *That* is what the survivors themselves attribute to their survival.

      As for the practical explanations, that's just Providence. You can *explain* it, but it still remains that these people survived, when similar crashes are normally completely fatal.

      August 13, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Or he was in a steep climb trying to clear the mountain. Wonder if passenger in co pilot seat survived.

      August 13, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Instead of rosaries, did not any of the surviving passengers have working satellite/blackberry phones? They were going into the boonies after all. Maybe, they did not know their ELT failed. Wonder if any other surviving passengers were pilots also. So common in Alaska.

      August 13, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Guy

    When talking aviation it spelled hangar, not hanger...

    August 13, 2010 at 3:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Lauren

      actually mary, it's grammar.

      August 13, 2010 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Planeman

      Mary obviously did not pay attention in grammer school. She needs to open a dictionary and check on how to spell really and her other derogatory word. And I don't think the reported saved any lives.

      August 13, 2010 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • john

      actually Lauren, its its.

      August 13, 2010 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Arun

    'How did anyone survive that?' ??? I see that the picture in the article shows an almost intact fuselage. There seems to be no evidence of fire. But there is good chance that the plane flipped once or twice. Of course after the crash all the passengers would have been exposed to the elements. But I see no reason why any one would not survive the crash.

    August 13, 2010 at 6:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Zack

      You have to take in to account the amount of damage that can be done that you can not see. just because the top part of the fuselage looks alright doesnt mean there isn't a severe amount of damage done to the underbell that could have caused a few of the deaths. Not to mention also they said the aircraft had hit trees. Although it may have been a controlled landing, you can only go so slow without the aircraft just coming straight down. Imagine hitting a car going 70 mph, no imagine being in a plane going 70 mph while hitting trees and coming down on your belly as well. It creates quit a bit of force for the human body. I'm not trying to say its not impossible to live, because some where still able to, but it also all depends on the amount of force your body is able to handle before it gives up.

      August 13, 2010 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. Tony

    Well simple, the fuselage don't look as described. It's not mangle, unless is not the right picture. Looks like the plane tried to crash land. Some people survive because the pilot belly landed the plane. The wings are not behind the fuselage as the news have been reporting either. Also if is not your time to go, then no matter what you will survive.

    August 13, 2010 at 6:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Jessica, Grand Rapids MI

      Go play in traffic and test out that "if its your time to go" theory.

      August 13, 2010 at 10:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. Tom

    These planes, DeHavilland DHC-3T's, are unbelievably durable and have the ability to fly at relatively low speeds hence survivability is greatly enhanced. In addition, the floats on the plane can slow the plane's forward speed considerably and absorb a lot of the impact before the fuselage is even touched.

    It may be more than a simple case of flying into the side of a mountain. The pilot may have got into a position of being 'boxed in'; unable to navigate over a mountain due to insufficient speed and lift to compensate for downdrafts. This would be similar to what caused the demise of Steve Fossett in 2007.

    If a pilot realizes that he cannot climb at an angle suitable for ascending the mountain in front of him, he can take measures to minimize the impact; measures like throttling back to stall speed and gliding into the treetops to minimize the effects of the crash.

    Finally, having survived the crash with the fuselage intact, there is very little chance of fire as the gas tanks have not been punctured, thus injuries sustained by the passengers are limited to whatever effects there are of being thrown about inside what is basically a tin can with upholstery. This definitely appears to be a case of a skilled pilot saving his passengers by employing a strategy of'controlled impact'.

    With regards to the narrative presented, the skills of the CNN correspondent leave much to be desired. In fact, with inadequate narratives such as this one, characterized by poor spelling (hanger) and virtually no analysis, it may be only a matter of time before CNN itself eventually does a 'crash and burn'.

    August 13, 2010 at 7:49 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I agree. The under carriage of any plane is pretty strong compared to the rest. In other articles , it mentioned no sign of the floats. The brunt of the impact must have been on the bottom, followed by the engine compartment/propeller in front, which was sheared off. Still think was in a full power steep climb. Not a controlled stall/ditch since quite some speed was involved in order to climb forward up the mountain.

      August 13, 2010 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |

    They probably flew the airplane into the side of the mountain on accident. CFIT.

    August 13, 2010 at 7:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      No they definatly flew the plane into the side of the mountain or purpose. Are you retarded?

      August 13, 2010 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
  7. Ubunto

    WhyTheFace, you went all the way out there to report but didn't take a camera or any pictures? BS, someone made a couple calls and wrote a half azzed story

    August 13, 2010 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
  8. Ben

    They are trying to cover it all up just like the aliens at Roswell. Don't believe them....

    August 13, 2010 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
  9. Brian McCrea

    Ben, who did you get your information from–Sasquatch?

    August 13, 2010 at 8:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. do what

    "with the fuselage intact, there is very little chance of fire as the gas tanks have not been punctured" ??? Aren't the fuel tanks in the wings?

    August 13, 2010 at 8:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Crow

      Not on a plane that small.

      August 13, 2010 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • db

      This was a turbine powered airplane and the fuel does not explode and burn as easily as avgas.

      August 13, 2010 at 11:09 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      This was a turbo prop which uses gasoline not jet fuel(diesel) therefor more explosive/flammable. They were lucky in that aspect

      August 13, 2010 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Oops, embarrassed. Turbo prop do use jet fuel , DB is right. Turbo chargers do use regular more flammable avgas.
      Anyway this otter is a high wing, considering the type of impact, that probably helped in preventing a fire.

      August 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Evan

    Nice prose covering a tragic event.

    August 13, 2010 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
  12. PA_John

    Perhaps the pilot found himself trying to desperately climb over the mountain, low fog, and not enough lift (remember, the plane had 9 people on board). It could be that he was in full climb, but did not make it.

    August 13, 2010 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |

    in the blink of an eye,you are gone...better be ready...."the paths of glory lead but to the grave" Thomas Gray,Elegy written in Churchyard...

    August 13, 2010 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jack

    Leave it to Tom. He knows it all!

    August 13, 2010 at 9:27 am | Report abuse |
  15. jc

    Its simple....It was God's will. At least thats what my uber religous nut bag ex-wife would say. 🙂

    August 13, 2010 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
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