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Ex-Senator Ted Stevens among 5 killed in plane crash

Amid fog, rain, small craft struck Alaska mountain

Alaskan Ted Stevens, who was the longest serving Republican in the Senate, was on a fishing trip in a remote area. Alaskan Ted Stevens, who was the longest serving Republican in the Senate, was on a fishing trip in a remote area.
By William Yardley and Liz Robbins
New York Times / August 11, 2010

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska was among five people who died in a plane crash in remote southwest Alaska on Monday while on a fishing trip, their small plane weaving through clouds and rain before hitting a mountainside.

Nine people were aboard the plane, a single-engine DeHavilland DHC-3T. Many of them had deep connections to government and Stevens’ long service in the Senate.

The body of Stevens, 86, the longest-serving Republican in the history of the Senate, was found just after daylight yesterday, according to a former aide.

President Obama, in a statement, described Stevens as “a decorated war hero’’ who “devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform.’’

“Michelle and I extend our condolences to the entire Stevens family and to the families of those who perished alongside Senator Stevens in this terrible accident,’’ Obama said.

Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA administrator, and his son Kevin were among those on board who survived, although O’Keefe was “badly injured,’’ according to an official briefed on the crash. Now an executive with the European aerospace firm EADS, O’Keefe was a longtime friend and fishing companion of Stevens.

Officials in Alaska said the plane, owned by GCI, an Alaska telecommunications provider, was first reported overdue about 7 p.m. Monday by the company, although the time of the crash was unclear. The group was believed to be flying earlier in the day to a lodge owned by GCI near Lake Aleknagik.

Authorities said the plane was caught in foggy, rainy weather about 10 miles north of the lake, near Dillingham, a fishing port on Bristol Bay.

It was unclear whether the pilot, Theron A. Smith, who died in the crash, had filed a flight plan, which would have cued authorities to begin searching earlier.

Authorities said weather and remoteness prevented them from reaching the crash site until about 7 a.m. yesterday. They said “good Samaritans’’ (many of whom had connections to GCI) first located the wrecked plane after the company reported it overdue Monday.

A longtime bush pilot in the Dillingham area was among those first at the scene, about 1,000 feet up in the Muklung Hills Range. The bush pilot, John Bouker, said visibility was below 200 feet much of the day.

He said Smith appeared to have been trying a sharp ascent when the plane crashed, perhaps realizing suddenly the proximity of mountains cloaked in clouds. “The plane was in a steep incline,’’ Bouker said. “He bounced the airplane uphill once it hit. When you’re in the clouds, you don’t see nothing. He was going to try to climb out of the mountains and find somewhere where the weather was clear.

“The plane was not all broken apart,’’ Bouker said. “It looked survivable to me. ’’

Alaska officials said three others died in addition to Stevens and Smith: William D. Phillips Sr., a Washington lawyer and former chief of staff for Stevens; Dana Tindall, 48, a 24-year employee and vice president for GCI in Anchorage; and her daughter, Corey, 16.

The four survivors were O’Keefe; his son; William Phillips Jr., 13; and James Morhard, chief of staff for the Senate Appropriations Committee when Stevens was its chairman.

Mike Porcaro, a local radio personality and advertising executive who has handled advertising for GCI since 1997, said he flew to the Aleknagik lodge last month on the same plane that crashed. The original engine in the plane, which had both wheels and floats, had been replaced with a turbine engine for power and stability, Porcaro said.

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