Stevens plane crash survivor recounts experience

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2010 5:43 PM
Stevens plane crash survivor recounts experience

Former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe was knocked unconscious when the floatplane he was in crashed on a remote mountainside in Alaska. He awoke in a daze with former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens sitting near him.

O'Keefe, pinned from the knees down in the wreckage, checked Stevens for a pulse and realized his 86-year-old longtime friend was dead, he said in interviews aired on NBC's "Today" show Friday. Stevens was the longest serving Republican in Senate history, serving 40 years.

Four others among the nine on board also died in the Aug. 9 crash in southwest Alaska.

"The degree of separation between survival and not was a fraction of what you'd ever imagine and it could have been anybody," O'Keefe said. "The randomness of this whole experience was such that ... any doubt you have about divine intervention goes away."

He said he was greatly relieved that his 19-year-old son, Kevin O'Keefe, survived.

"I can't even imagine surviving from this experience if he were not OK," he said.

The group was heading from a lodge to a fishing camp when the 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3 Otter plane went down.

There was no warning before the crash, said O'Keefe, who fractured his neck and broke an ankle. He still wears neck and leg braces.

After he regained consciousness, O'Keefe spent the first few moments, "spitting out shards of teeth," he said.

He shouted out for his son, who was unconscious for a while. Then O'Keefe heard his son, whose seat was dislodged in the impact. The teen was suspended in the air, dangling in his harness. Kevin O'Keefe had a dislocated hip and broken jaw.

The other survivors are lobbyist Jim Morhard and 13-year-old Willy Phillips, the son of lobbyist William "Bill" Phillips Sr., who died in the crash. It fell to O'Keefe to tell him his father did not make it and he described the boy as incredibly mature. Willy Phillips was the only one who could still move around and he went outside to see if there was any way to communicate with planes that might fly overhead.

For hours, there was silence as they waited among the dead _ the only sound came from falling rain and water seeping into the fuselage. O'Keefe worried the survivors might be defeated by the elements if help didn't arrive in time.

Then private pilots spotted the wreckage and set in motion a frantic rescue effort that culminated when National Guardsmen had survivors airlifted off the mountain.

O'Keefe said weather prevented rescuers from reaching the site until early the next morning. Hearing the helicopters overhead, to him, was "noting short of a miraculous position."

The others killed in the crash were pilot Theron Smith, General Communications Inc. executive Dana Tindall and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey Tindall. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the crash.

O'Keefe said he repeatedly contemplates the randomness of death and survival, why some lived while others so close by died.

"I'll continue to wonder, I think, until my last breath," he said.