Alaska, Nation Mourns Stevens' Death

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC
Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage
Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

Alaska and the nation mourned the death of former Senator  Ted Stevens and four others who were killed when a plane crashed Monday night north of Dillingham.

Four survivors, including former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe and his son, Kevin, were airlifted to Providence Hospital in Anchorage Tuesday afternoon.

According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety, the other two survivors were:

  • William “Willy” Phillips, Jr., 13 (no hometown given)
  • Jim Morhard of Alexandria, Virginia (no age given)

Others killed in the crash were:

  • Pilot, Theron “Terry” Smith, 62, of Eagle River. Smith is a well-known pilot in Alaska aviation circles.
  • William “Bill” Phillips, Sr. (No hometown or age given)
  • GCI executive, Dana Tindall, 48 and her daughter, Corey Tindall, 16. Both were from Anchorage.

Details surrounding the crash were sketchy and slow coming Tuesday morning. But by Tuesday evening, the National Transportation Safety Board was able to describe what it believed had happened.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the NTSB had interviewed witnesses about the crash but had not been able to confirm all of the details.

The single-engine plane, owned by Alaska-based communications company GCI, had departed a GCI lodge and was heading for a fish camp about 3:00 p.m.

When the plane – a De Havilland DHC Otter – did not return to the lodge as expected, the lodge phoned the fish camp to ask about a return flight. Several aircraft departed in search for the missing plane.

The downed craft was spotted and a physician was dropped off at the scene. Two other members of a medical team also were dropped off at the site.

Conditions at the site were slippery and treacherous.

The doctor found the plane nearly intact but with a smashed nose. It had dug a 100-yard gash up a hill, Hersman said.

One person had managed to get out of the wrecked plane, which smelled of fuel.  The others were taken from the plane. The doctor and the other rescuers spent the night with the survivors and victims.

The Air Force 11th Rescue Coordination Center, manned by Alaska National Guardsmen, was contacted by Dillingham Flight Service after the downed aircraft was spotted.

Alaska Air National Guard 210 Rescue Squadron flew an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with 212 Rescue Squadron pararescuemen to the scene and drop the rescue crew near the site. The squadron helped with the rescue. A U.S. Coast Guard C-130  also provided support.

Attempts to get to the crash scene initially were delayed by bad weather.

Pilot and former state lawmaker Rick Halford was flying a float plane in the area hours before Stevens’ plane crashed. He said the weather was atrocious and it did not appear to have improved during the course of the day. At times, the visibility was under a mile, he said.

Survivors were first taken to Dillingham by the Alaska Air National Guard and the United States Coast Guard. They were then put on a Coast Guard C-130 and flown to Anchorage.

The crash sent shock waves through Alaska and reverberated throughout the nation.

President Obama said Stevens, 86, had “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.”

Ronald Duncan, the president, CEO and founder of GCI, expressed “profound sorrow” over the loss of Stevens and the others on the plane.

“We are deeply gratefuly to the search-and-rescue professionals and the many good Samaritans who responded so quickly and rendered assistance to the injured passengers. On behalf of the men and women of GCI, I offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends dealing with this heartbreaking event. We will do all we can to support them in the weeks and months ahead.”

The Stevens family, through a spokesman, said the nation had lost a great man.

” We have lost a tremendous husband and father and grandfather,” the statement said. “He loved Alaska with all his heart. He was a guiding light through Statehood and the development of the 49th State. Now that light is gone but the warmth and radiance of his life and his work will shine forever in the last frontier.”

Stevens survived a plane crash in 1978 in Anchorage that killed his first wife Ann. He later remarried, and is survived by Catherine Stevens. He has six children and numerous grandchildren.

Stevens served in the Senate longer than any other Republican. He was defeated in 2008 by Democrat Mark Begich. Begich’s father, Nick, was killed in a plane crash in 1972 along with fellow congressman, Hale Boggs.

Fellow Alaskans expressed deep sorrow after hearing the news and they praised Stevens for his indelible mark on the state.

Begich said Stevens’ “contributions to Alaska are enormous and his legacy of fierce devotion to Alaska will be long-lasting.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, said “the thought of losing Ted Stevens, a man who was known to business and community leaders, Native chiefs and everyday Alaskans as ‘Uncle Ted,’ is too difficult to fathom.”

“His entire life was dedicated to public service—from his days as a pilot in World War II to his four decades of service in the United States Senate,” she said. “He truly was the greatest of the ‘Greatest Generation.”

Governor Sean Parnell, speaking to reporters in Anchorage Tuesday afternoon said, “Though small of stature, Ted Stevens seemed larger than life, and anybody who knew him, knew him that way, for he built Alaska and he stood for Alaska and he fought for Alaskans.”

Stevens served Alaska for 40 years in the U.S. Senate. As an Interior Department official in the 1950s, he helped Alaska become a state. And after he became a U.S. senator, he shaped most of the federal laws, policies and programs that now define Alaska–from the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline authorization, to the Native Claims Settlement Act, to fisheries to the 1980 Alaska Lands Act.

Stevens lost reelection after being convicted of lying on senate disclosure forms in October of 2008 – but the case was thrown out five months later due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Stevens said farewell to the Senate in December of 2008 in a floor speech: “My motto has been here, to hell with politics. Just do what’s right for Alaska. And I’ve tried every day to live up to those words.”

Stevens grew up during the Depression era. He served during World War II in the Army Air Corps, flying missions to China in support of the Flying Tigers. He worked his way through college and Harvard Law School before making his way to Alaska as a lawyer.

Stevens told his senate colleagues in 2008 that serving among them was
a dream come true:

“I really must pinch myself to fully understand that I’m privileged to speak on the floor of the US Senate. Coming from the boyhood I’ve had, I could never dream to be here today. And home is where the heart is, Mr. President. If that is so, I have two homes. One is right here in this chamber. And the other is in my beloved state of Alaska.”

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