Alaska Plane Crash Kills Ex-Sen. Stevens, 4 Others

Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is among the five people who were killed after an amphibious plane crashed in Alaska on Monday. The plane plowed into a mountain, leaving a 300-foot gash. The four survivors include former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe and his teenage son.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

This morning, we're going to look at the legacy of Alaska's Ted Stevens, who served four decades in the Senate - longer than any other Republican. First though, we'll take a closer look at the plane crash that killed him and four others on Monday night.

There were four people on board who survived, and they spent the night on the side of the mountain waiting to be rescued.

As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, small plane crashes are so common in Alaska, that on Monday night, that crash wasnt the only one.

MARTIN KASTE: Federal accident investigators were dispatched to Alaska yesterday, and by late afternoon, they were providing some of the first details of the site where Stevens' plane crashed. National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the nine people on board had taken off from a lodge where they were staying, to fly to a fishing camp.

The aircraft was a float-plane, equipped to land on lakes and rivers. But Hersman says, fifteen minutes into the flight, the plane crashed into a mountainside - so hard that it left a 100-foot gash on the ground. Still, much of the plane actually survived the impact.

Ms. DEBORAH HERSMAN (Chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board): All four corners of the aircraft were identified: the nose, the tail, and the two wings, and the aircraft was largely intact.

KASTE: And that was fortunate for the four survivors, who included former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who's been close to Ted Stevens for a number of years, and O'Keefe's son. A small search party made contact with them that evening, providing first aid, but they weren't able to get off the mountain until National Guard and Coast guard aircraft punched through the weather the next morning.

Even for the pros, flying in Alaska can be a gamble.

Mr. DICK ARMSTRONG (CEO, ACE Hangar and Fuel Company): Well, it's that weather can change and it always does in Alaska.

Dick Armstrong is an experienced pilot who owns a hanger and aircraft fuel business. He says if you want to get around Alaska, especially to the villages, you have no choice but to fly.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: The airports are gravel, for the most part, and they're unattended - they don't have towers on them. And you can't always get reliable weather in some of these remote places, so you have to go and see what you see and then make your judgments from there.

KASTE: Of course, many Alaskans like flying. Just this past Sunday, a man took out his father's Piper PA-32 to give some visitors from Texas a spin around the Knik Glacier, near Anchorage. The plane ended up crashing on the glacier, and the passengers have been up there on the ice ever since. In fact, some of their rescuers are now stranded there with them, after a National Guard helicopter slid and rolled over on the ice.

Dick Armstrong says glaciers can be tricky.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: One thing that can happen is, and it just doesn't appear to be as steep as it actually is. And if you fly a general aviation airplane with some flightseers and you're, maybe heavy, it's very possible that your airplane cannot climb faster than the glacier will rise, and you'll just plow right into the thing.

KASTE: And just as small planes are part of life in Alaska, small plane crashes are part of its history.

Senator MARK BEGICH (Democrat, Alaska): As someone who lost my dad in a plane crash, it bring back lot of memories, but also...

KASTE: This is Mark Begich, whose father, Congressman Nick Begich, disappeared in a small plane in 1972. Now Mark Begich is a U.S. Senator, he beat Ted Stevens in the 2008 election, and he has a good idea of what Stevens' family is going through now.

Sen. BEGICH: We share our condolences with them, but recognize the incredible history and work that Ted Stevens did to create what we have in this state today.

KASTE: Among the many federal projects that Ted Stevens brought to Alaska was a system of automatic Webcams, positioned at treacherous mountain passes and airports. So now, if a pilot isn't sure he should fly to certain parts of Alaska, he can go online and take a look at the weather there, before he risks it.

Martin Kaste, NPR news.

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