Although four people perished along with former Sen. Ted Stevens in an Alaska plane crash Monday, the death toll would've been higher had it not been for four good Samaritans who raced to the crash site, National Guardsmen said today.
"Undoubtedly, if they hadn't been there, not only might they not have survived the night, our extracation would've been much more difficult," National Guardsman Technical Sgt. Kristofer Abel told "Good Morning America" today. "They helped us enormously."
The volunteers, two emergency medical technicians, a doctor and a nurse, were dropped into the region by aircraft and hiked more than 1,000 feet to the crash site, investigators said. When they arrived, they found the plane on a 30-degree slope but largely intact. One injured survivor had already climbed out on his own. The volunteers performed emergency treatment on the survivors and stayed with them overnight, the Guardsmen said.
"They were all conscious, able to speak," responding National Guardsman Senior Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis said of the survivors.
Abel said the survivors were "pretty banged up" and had several broken bones and suspected internal injuries. But he said thanks to the volunteers, "they had survived long enough that, in my opinion, they're not going to have any issues after we got to them."
"There was a lot of selfless work that was done last night," National Transportation Safety Bureau Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Tuesday.
Help also came from an unlikely source: fishing waders. According to the Guardsmen, survivors who were wearing the waders may have been better shielded from the elements during that harrowing night before rescue came.
"They act as a survival-type blanket," Davis said. "[They] keep the heat in and the rain out."
One of the survivors was former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who is currently in critical condition. His son, who was also on the plane, survived too. The two other survivors were William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13, and lobbyist and former Stevens aide Jim Morhard of Alexandria, Virginia, according to the Alaska DPS.
In addition to Stevens, the other four who died in the crash were the pilot, Theron "Terry" Smith, 62, of Eagle River, Alaska; William "Bill" Phillips Sr.; Dana Tindall, 48, of Anchorage, Alaska; and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey Tindall, also of Anchorage, the Alaska Department of Public Safety said.
Phillips was a Washington lobbyist and Stevens' former chief of staff. Dana Tindall was a senior vice president for the Alaska telecommunications company GCI.
Across the northernmost state, flags are flying half-mast in honor of Stevens, the man who arguably helped shape the state more than anyone in its history.
Stevens' Death Prompts Outpouring of Commemoration
Statements poured in commemorating the late senator, who was often at odds with his own party members.
"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," President Obama said in a statement Tuesday. "Michelle and I extend our condolences to the entire Stevens family and to the families of those who perished alongside Sen. Stevens in this terrible accident."
Former President George H.W. Bush remembered Stevens as a "respected friend" who "loved the Senate."
"Ted Stevens loved the Senate; he loved Alaska; and he loved his family -- and he will be dearly missed," Bush said in a statement.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also offered her condolences, writing on Facebook Tuesday, "In our land of towering mountains and larger than life characters, none were larger than the man who in 2000 was voted Alaskan of the Century. This decorated World War II pilot was a warrior and a true champion of Alaska."
Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Guy Hayes said earlier today that the Guard was called to the area, about 20 miles north of Dillingham, at about 7 p.m. Monday after a passing aircraft saw the downed plane.
State and federal officials say severe weather hampered the rescue operation. The National Weather Service reported rain and fog at Dillingham, with low clouds and limited visibility early Tuesday.
Conditions ranged from visibility of about 10 miles reported at Dillingham shortly before 7 p.m. Monday to 3 miles, with rain and fog, reported about an hour later, according to the agency.
Dillingham is located in northern Bristol Bay, about 325 miles southwest of Anchorage.
The aircraft was a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter registered to Anchorage-based communications company GCI, the Federal Aviation Administration told the Anchorage Daily News. The plane dated back to 1957, but the National Transportation Safety Board said it had been retrofitted with a turboprop engine.
Commuting on such small-engine planes are the norm for Alaskans. Stevens survived another similar crash on Dec. 4, 1978, when a Learjet carrying Stevens and his wife crashed at Anchorage International Airport, killing five people, including Stevens' wife Ann.
Ted Stevens Dies in Plane Crash
Given the dependency on air travel and the rugged terrain and flying conditions, Alaska has a relatively dismal safety record for air travel.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), from 1990 through 2008 there were 1,566 commuter and air taxi crashes in the United States. Alaska accounted for more than one-third of all those crashes -- 551 accidents -- and 20 percent of all the fatal crashes during that time.
That number does not included the count of private plane accidents, including Monday's.
The FAA has been working to improve aviation in Alaska, testing a GPS satellite-based navigation system. Tests of that system showed it reduced accidents by 47 percent. But it is likely that the plane carrying Stevens did not have this type of navigation system on it.
Friends of Stevens said he was traveling Monday to the GCI-owned Agulowak Lodge near Lake Aleknagik, the Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday.
Stevens was a Republican senator from the state from 1968 to 2009, and later was found guilty of failing to report gifts received when he was a senator.
United States Attorney General Eric Holder later decided to drop all charges against Stevens, vacating his conviction. Holder had cited serious prosecutorial misconduct during the trial. But the charges cost Stevens his career, making him the first longest serving senator to not win back his seat.