Volunteers discovered the wreckage late Monday and tended to the injured, including Stevens’ fishing buddy, ex-NASA chief Sean O’Keefe, until help could arrive Tuesday.
The 86-year-old Stevens’ death stunned both lawmakers and residents alike, even in a state familiar with plane crashes, because of his pre-eminence in Alaska history: A decorated World War II pilot who survived a deadly 1978 plane crash, he was the longest-serving GOP senator in history and spent his 40-year Senate career bringing billions of federal dollars home. One failed effort — the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” — became part of his national legacy, as did convictions that helped foil his 2008 campaign but were later tossed out.
“He is one of the real giants,” said Paul Brown, a consultant to nonprofits who was having lunch at an outdoor cafe in Anchorage. “He dedicated his life to this state.”
Investigators arrived late Tuesday at the crash site outside Dillingham, located on Bristol Bay about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage. The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but the flights at Dillingham are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said the plane, a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3T registered to Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., took off at 2 p.m. Monday from a GCI corporate site on Lake Nerka, heading to the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik.
He said the plane was flying by visual flight rules, and was not required to file a flight plan.
National Weather Service data shows that weather conditions deteriorated between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Monday — the approximate time the FAA said the plane took off. Visibility at Dillingham, the nearest observation area, was about 10 miles with overcast skies at 1:49 p.m.; it was 3 miles by 2:22, with light rain, fog and mist reported.
Volunteer pilots were dispatched around 7 p.m. after the plane was overdue at its destination. They came upon the wreckage about a half hour later, authorities said.
The weather soon took a turn for the worse, with heavy fog, clouds and rain blanketing the area and making it impossible for rescuers to arrive until after daybreak. O’Keefe, his son and two others were flown to the hospital. The O’Keefes had broken bones and other injuries, former NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said.
Stevens and O’Keefe, 54, are fishing buddies who had been planning a trip near where the float plane crashed.
Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Guy Hayes offered no details about the survivors’ conditions or their identities.
The bodies of Stevens and the other four victims remained at the scene Tuesday, investigators said.
The Stevens crash is the latest in a long line of aviation accidents to claim political figures over the years in the U.S., including Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz in 1991, South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson in 1993, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000 and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002.
Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are not accessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air to reach their destinations.
In a similar accident by another GCI-owned plane, an amphibious, float-equipped Havilland plane flipped after landing on Lake Nerka in 2002. The pilot drowned and a passenger was injured. The plane was landing on the lake in front of the lodge when the accident occurred.
Stevens was one of two survivors in a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife,Ann, and several others. In 1972, Nick Begich, who was Alaska’s only congressman, was killed when his plane disappeared over Alaska with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana.
“Alaska has lost one of its greatest statesmen and a true pioneer of our state with the passing of Senator Ted Sevens,” said Begich’s son, Mark, an Anchorage Democrat who narrowly defeated Stevens in 2008.
His counterpart, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said the state had lost a hero and “I lost a dear friend,” praising his service during World War II. He flew cargo planes over “the hump” in the Himalayas and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama called Stevens’ widow, Catherine, on Tuesday afternoon to express his condolences.
“A decorated World War II veteran, Sen. Ted Stevens devoted his career to serving the people of Alaska and fighting for our men and women in uniform,” Obama said in prepared remarks.
A moderate Republican, Stevens was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history. (The late Strom Thurmond was in the Senate longer than Stevens, but he spent a decade there as a Democrat before switching to the GOP.)
“He always kept his word to me and to other senators. In moments of legislative battle, he would come onto the floor wearing his Hulk tie, and he would growl and act like a bulldog. But then he would spot friends on the floor and give a wink and a grin,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
The wiry octogenarian was a legend in his home state, where he was known as “Uncle Ted.” Though he was built like a birch sapling, he liked to encourage comparisons with the Incredible Hulk — an analogy that seemed appropriate for his outsized place in Alaska history.
He was named Alaskan of the Century in 1999 for having the greatest impact on the state in 100 years. He brought in “Stevens money” that literally helped keep the remote state solvent. The Anchorage airport is also named in his honor.
“He did his job and he did it well,” said Royce Metz, a bookstore worker. “That’s all I want to know about a politician: Do your job.”
But one of his projects — infamously known as the “Bridge to Nowhere” — became a symbol of pork-barrel spending in Congress and a target of taxpayer groups who challenged an appropriation for hundreds of millions of dollars for bridge construction in Ketchikan.
Stevens’ standing in Alaska was toppled by corruption allegations and a federal trial in 2008. He was convicted of all seven counts — and narrowly lost to Begich in the election the following week. But five months later, Attorney General Eric Holder dropped the indictment and declined to proceed with a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct.
Stevens never discussed the events publicly.