Years After Plane Crash, Survivor Recalls Father

Norm Ollestad survived crash that killed father, using lessons dad taught.

ByRobin Roberts and Bonnie Mclean
June 03, 2009, 9:59 AM

June 3, 2009 -- Norm Ollestad and his 8-year-old son, Noah, have been chasing waves for years. It's Norm's way of passing on the lessons of his father.

"There's really good waves out," said the dad, now 41, on one recent trip to the California coast.

"Yesterday I got this big old tube. The first time I wiped out," his son enthused.

Norm rode his first wave before he could walk, and he skied at 3 years old. His father, Norman Ollestad Sr., was determined to push him to his limits.

"I wanted to be playing, just like my son," Norm said. "He just wants to play. I just wanted to play."

Norm wasn't always on board for his father's challenging adventures.

"You know, I wanted to play with kids. So, all these times I was off skiing, I was always thinking, 'God, I -- there's a birthday party this weekend. Or I could just be hanging out watching TV with my buddies. You know, riding a bike.' All these simple things. My dad could not understand that. ... He wanted me to live life."

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By the time Norm was 11 he was a successful ski racer. But soon his life would take an unexpected, and tragic, turn. He recounts the episode -- and the lessons of his father -- in a new book, "Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival."

On Feb. 19, 1979, Norm's father chartered a small plane to fly over the San Gabriel Mountains to Big Bear, where Norm was to receive an award from the Junior U.S. Ski Team. With Norm and his dad were the pilot and his dad's girlfriend, Sandra Cressman.

"A few minutes into the flight, maybe 10 or 15 minutes into the flight, we hit the storm," Norm recalled.

"And it was -- all the windows were gray. You couldn't tell up or down, left or right. And, pretty soon, a limb flashed by the window. And I thought, 'Well, it's a trick of light, something. It's funny. 'Cause the limbs aren't up in -- in the sky.' And then maybe a few seconds after that, another one. And then I knew that we were about to crash. And I curled up my body. I yelled, 'Watch out.' And I curled up my body. And there's a couple thuds. Went right through my spine. And then the next thing I knew I woke up and the plane was torn apart."

Norm was knocked out for awhile. When he woke up he saw the plane was torn apart, hanging over an ice chute.

"I yelled for [my dad], instinctually," he said. "'Dad, dad, I can't breathe.' No response. You know, it was some part of me just thought, 'Oh, he's knocked out. And I'm not strong enough to wake him up.' And I just couldn't really conceive of the fact that he was dead."

The pilot and Norm's father, 43 at the time, both perished in the crash. The only other survivor, Cressman, was injured and panicked. There was nobody to take charge but 11-year-old Norm.

"I told Sandra we have to go," he said. "'Cause the storm was getting worse. It was getting colder. And I sensed, eventually it's gonna get dark. And I don't want to be up here in the dark. 'Cause we're not gonna make it through the night. And she didn't want to go. But I -- I insisted that we go."

Norm had to support Cressman, who could barely walk. They were climbing down a steep and icy slope when she slipped and fell into an ice chute and was killed.

"Now, I'm by myself. ... Just me. I did have something that came across me, that I just pushed away immediately. Which was, 'OK, now I don't have an adult weighing down on me. And trying to manage her and myself.'"

Alone on an icy mountain, Norm carefully made his way down through the freezing air. The skin on his fingers came off in the cold, but he says he was never panicked, never afraid, and everything his father had taught him sustained him.

"No doubt in my mind. That's when it came to me. You know, all those -- all the times I complained, bitched, and moaned. And he said, 'Oh, you're gonna thank me one day. 'Cause this is -- this-- this stuff you're gonna really enjoy. And you'll have it, you'll always have it. And it's beautiful.'"

After nine hours of treacherous climbing, Norm reached a meadow where he found footprints. They led him to a road, where he met a teenage rescuer, who carried him to safety at a nearby ranch. Soon his injuries were treated, and a team of rescuers headed back up the mountain to try to recover Cressman.

In 2006, 27 years after the crash, Norm returned to the disaster site for the first time.

"I was just hiking up saying, 'God, I wonder where the plane [was],' and then I saw these two trees and I just stopped and said, 'Oh, that's where we hit by the wing,'" he said. "And I could have been wrong but I just sat and it was steep, and I looked out and I looked over at the trees, and then I noticed something at the shale and I picked it away, and it was pieces of the plane. So I had actually identified the actual impact sight just by these trees."

Crash Survivor: Thinking About Fatherhood

The long trek back to the crash sight -- and the work of writing the memories down -- got Norm to thinking about fatherhood. How the one he lost so profoundly shaped the one he became.

"The times I feel closest to him actually is when I'm ... lost in the trees, skiing powder alone, which I do mostly," said Norm. "I'll think of him. He's the one who showed me how to sniff that stuff out and gave me the passion for it."

He explained why he chose to come out with his story when he did.

"I think that, unconsciously, I didn't write the story sooner, because I didn't have both sides of the story," Norm said. "Which is I wasn't a father yet. And I thought, 'This is the time.'

"I definitely have the same instinct that my father had, which is I want to share these passions with my son. I think it's important to expose him to surfing, skiing, hockey, whatever it is. And -- 'cause I know that -- I know that along -- down the line in his life, he will find beauty and pleasure when he needs it. And he'll always be able to go to these things. No matter what's going on in his life.

"I don't force him the same way my father did. Or coerce him quite the same way. I sort of offer it over and over and over. And every once in a while, he'll take me up on it."

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