Five of nine people aboard a GCI plane that crashed near Dillingham are reported dead, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. A spokesman for former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said Tuesday morning that Stevens was on board the plane and is among the dead.
"I can confirm to you that the senator died in the crash," said Mitch Rose, former chief of staff to Stevens.
Also aboard the plane was former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, according to media reports. Reuters and the New York Times reported Tuesday that O'Keefe, 54, survived the crash, along with his son, who was also on board.
The downed plane -- a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter -- is registered to General Communications Inc., according to a friend of one of the people believed to have been on the plane. The Anchorage-based telecom company operates a lodge near Dillingham. In summer, GCI employees, clients and guests routinely fly to the lodge on GCI's plane.
Rose confirmed only that Stevens is among the dead. The identities of other victims was not known as of late Tuesday morning. In a statement released shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday, GCI president and CEO Ron Duncan said the company was not able to confirm specific information about the plane's passengers.
"We are aware of news reports stating that four of the nine individuals on board the aircraft have survived," Duncan's statement reads. "At this point, I cannot confirm or comment on these reports. We are waiting for authoritative information from the rescue units. All of our energies are focused on working with the rescue units and mobilizing to support the families and friends of the individuals on the aircraft."
Rescue was slowed by weather
At a press conference Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Tom Katkus of the Alaska Air National Guard said the first word of the downed plane came around 7 p.m. and that it was located on the side of a mountain, about a 40-degree slope with rocks and scrub brush, about 17 miles north of Dillingham. It was unclear whether the plane was leaving or returning to the lodge.
GCI employees from the remote lodge and some in Dillingham were instrumental in getting local "good Samaritans" to the crash scene while the weather was still good, he said.
The National Guard diverted rescue crews from another crash on Knik Glacier to the scene, but by the time they got to the area the weather had closed in. He described the weather as rain, clouds and fog, not the snow and ice rescuers had encountered at the Knik Glacier scene. The crews were forced to go to Dillingham and the local rescuers spent the night at the scene providing some medical aid.
"Weather prohibited any type of rescue effort into the evening," Katkus said. "The weather has been a factor in slowing this rescue."
Katkus would not or could not say more about the condition of the victims during the night. He said as far as he knew there were no signs of a fire at the crash site.
Guard members got close to the scene at first light and put pararescue teams on the ground. Using hoists, they pulled four survivors from the wreckage and took them to the hospital in Dillingham. Tuesday morning they were loaded onto a Coast Guard plane and flown to Anchorage for treatment.
Katkus and other state officials said they could not release any other names, either survivors or those who were killed, until the next of kin have been notified.
Katkus and others said they had no information on why the plane crashed. An NTSB team was expected to arrive at the scene by midday and planned to hold a press conference later Tuesday.
Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters said troopers were trying to reach the crash site by taking a boat around to a point where they could hike in. The DPS officers would secure the scene and provide assistance to the NTSB, he said.
Masters said extrication equipment was also being transported to the site but he wasn't sure whether that meant passengers had been trapped inside.
Katkus said communications with rescuers in Dillingham and those at the crash site were "sparse" through the night but that good communication was established once the National Guard and the Coast Guard got on the scene.
Coverage of Ted Stevens
No matter whether an Alaskan calls former Senator Ted Stevens "Uncle Ted" with fondness or derision, that Alaskan cannot deny that the Great Land would not be what it is today without him.
Stevens' career in government service and politics began when he was appointed U.S. Attorney in Fairbanks in 1953. Over the next several years, Stevens shut down gambling halls on the Last Frontier and helped the territory win its statehood by advising the Secretary of Interior. He shepherded a settlement that protected the ancestral lands of Alaska's native people and ushered in the state's 1970s oil boom. Stevens drafted complex laws governing the Bering Sea's prolific fisheries -- and as a master of the Senate earmarking game, helped Alaska secure tens of billions of federal money, which brought many rural villages into the modern era. He spent nearly 40 years in the U.S. Senate -- making him the longest-serving Republican in Congress's upper chamber.
Stevens' legacy was tainted by his relationship with oilman Bill Allen, who was at the center of a sweeping political corruption scandal. In fall 2008, Stevens was convicted in a Washington, D.C. federal court for not reporting gifts from Allen, but the judge later threw out the conviction, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Still, Stevens lost his bid for reelection in November 2008 to Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich, a Democrat. Stevens' attorneys issued a statement (PDF) Tuesday afternoon reiterating their displeasure with the events of 2008.
"Even after the case against him was dismissed, he remained profoundly affected by the government's misconduct and its implications for others. His fervent hope was that meaningful change would be brought to the criminal justice system so that others would not be mistreated as he was by the very officials whose duty it is to represent the United States justly and fairly," reads the statement from Brendan Sullivan and Rob Cary of the law firm Williams and Connolly.
Alaska leaders react
Former senator and 2008 presidential primary candidate Mike Gravel, a Democrat who served in the Alaska State Legislature and the U.S. Senate with Stevens, remembered his former colleague fondly -- although publicly ("and this is what people remember," Gravel said) the two often butted heads over national issues like the Vietnam War and the "military industrial complex."
"Personally, I liked him, and I think he liked and respected me," Gravel said. "He had an air of brusqueness, but it endeared him to people. He easily made friends, and he was not a bitter person, and so I think he was well-liked by his colleagues."
Gravel pointed to Stevens' longtime friendship with Hawaii Democrat Sen. Daniel Inouye as evidence of Stevens' ability to connect with ostensible opponents.
"Stevens had this brusqueness, but a fatherliness that went along with it," Gravel said. "As he became older, this became more of his hallmark in Alaska. That's why they called him Uncle Ted."
Gravel laughed as he remembered campaign commercials in which Stevens played up his credentials as an outdoorsman.
"One of his ads when he was running for the Senate had him on a horse with a revolver strapped to his side," Gravel said. "I was not a hunter or a fisherman, which made me suspect, so to speak, in Alaska. But (Stevens) wanted to advertise that he was -- and he truly was."
Gravel's respect for Stevens wasn't tempered by the corruption scandal and trial.
"I was very, very sad over that situation," Gravel said. "You know, he made some mistakes, but it was a terrible way to end a very illustrious career. I felt very sad about it."
And, he added, he doesn't believe it will taint Stevens' legacy in Alaska or Outside.
"I think he'll go down in history as one of the most effective public leaders in history. And I think rightfully so," Gravel said.
Begich issued the following statement Tuesday before Stevens' death was confirmed: "I join Alaskans and others across the country waiting for details of last night's tragic plane crash near Dillingham. My thoughts and prayers are with those on board the plane and their families as we wait for more information."
Begich's father, Nick Begich, died in a plane crash in 1972 in Alaska. He was the state's lone U.S. representative.
As reports began to confirm Steven's death in the crash, other prominent Alaska politicians issued reactions.
"Last night, Alaska lost a hero and I lost a dear friend," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a prepared statement. "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. He truly was the greatest of the ‘Greatest Generation.'"
Murkowski served in the Senate with Stevens from 2003 through 2008.
U.S. Rep. Don Young mentioned his personal relationship with Stevens in a statement released midmorning on Tuesday.
"Ted was a very close, personal friend of me and my family," Young said. "I used to babysit his kids, and he would babysit mine. He's been my mentor, first in the State Legislature, and then as our Senior Senator and I will miss him a great deal. Ted is a true Alaskan hero, and a hero for our nation. I am a man of strong faith and I know that he is in heaven continuing the good Lord's work as he did here on earth. I will continue to pray for Catherine, the kids, and the families of all of the other victims on board. May God bless them all."
Alaska State Senate President Gary Stevens issued a statement Tuesday afternoon calling Stevens "an Alaskan icon."
"We in the Alaska Legislature were privileged a few years ago to honor Senator Stevens as ‘the Alaskan of the Century,' based on those decades of work he put it to build our state, and I think, while that is certainly a superlative, it says it all," Gary Stevens said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Senator Stevens' family -- and to all the victims' families -- and while we can take some comfort in the recognition that he lived a full, fruitful and productive life, it was too short and he will be missed."
Stevens' death in an aviation accident contains a sad kind of congruence. At Anchorage International Airport in 1978, before it was named after him, the former senator survived a Learjet crash which claimed the lives of five fellow passengers, including his first wife Ann, with whom he had five children.
In 1944, Stevens earned his wings in the Army Air Corps, and flew transport aircraft for the next two years in the China-Burma-India theater of World War II. During his service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the U.S. military's highest individual honor for aviation heroism.
After the war, Stevens earned a B.A. in Political Science from UCLA, and then a law degree from Harvard Law School. He began practicing law in Washington D.C. for the firm of Northcutt Ely and became a legal advisor for Usibelli Coal Mine in Healy, Alaska. In 1952, Stevens drove up the Alaska Highway to practice law in Fairbanks, and in 1953, he was appointed U.S. Attorney there.
This is a developing story. Check back for further updates throughout the day.