3 still missing presumed dead; recovery, investigation expected to be tough
By Beth Bragg
The Anchorage Daily News
Copyright 2007 The Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — With three people still missing somewhere in Prince William Sound near Whittier, authorities on Monday ended a week-long hunt for an air ambulance that vanished midway through a 90-minute trip from Cordova to Anchorage.
Freezing rain and poor visibility kept helicopters on the ground Monday, a spokesman for the military’s Rescue Coordination Center said.
That, coupled with the belief that the LifeGuard helicopter is somewhere under water too deep for divers to explore, persuaded authorities to call off the search.
The decision came two days after searchers found the body of flight nurse John Stumpff and a door from the BK117 Eurocopter; they washed up a mile apart on the north shore of Passage Canal near Whittier.
“We’re here to save lives, and all indications show there are no survivors,” said McHugh Pierre, spokesman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which helped run the search. “In seven days, we found no sign of human activity.”
Still missing are pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna; paramedic Cameron Carter, 24, of Kenai, and patient Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova. Their families learned Monday afternoon that the search had ended.
Rebecca Novotny, one of Stumpff’s sisters, said she hopes the missing might still be found. Not knowing the fate of her brother was worse than knowing it, she said.
“Knowing makes a huge difference,” Novotny said from Kansas City. “When we didn’t know, it was horrible. To continue to not know, I just can’t imagine it.”
In seven days of looking, searchers found very little.
Besides Stumpff’s body and the helicopter’s left sliding door, all that has been found is some medical equipment and two helmets — Stumpff’s and Brabham’s.
The shift from rescue mode to recovery mode means the military — the Alaska Air National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard — has ended its involvement, and the Alaska State Troopers will take the lead in any future recovery efforts.
It also means the beginning of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the cause of the crash. The task will be difficult without having the helicopter to examine and without knowing exactly where it went down.
“This one is gonna be tough,” NTSB investigator Clint Johnson said.
He said that in the last five years, he can think of only three or four investigations of missing aircraft.
“Our goal, our wish, would be to be able to recover the wreckage,” Johnson said. “In the next couple days, we’ll see if an underwater search is even feasible. Depths there can be in excess of 600 feet, which puts it out of reach of normal diving depths.”
Johnson met Monday with officials from both LifeGuard, the air ambulance service run by Providence Alaska Medical Center, and Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska, the owner of the missing helicopter and the employer of the pilot.