America’s longest-serving Republican senator was killed on Tuesday night after a plane crash on the way to a fishing trip in Dillingham, Alaska. Ted Stevens, 86, who represented Alaska for 41 years until 2008, had planned the fishing trip with his buddy Sean O’Keefe, 54, the former head of Nasa and the chief executive officer of the defence contractor EADS North America. O’Keefe’s condition is still unclear, though a source told Reuters on Tuesday that O’Keefe had survived. O’Keefe’s son was also on board the plane at the time.
The aircraft came down late on Monday at 8:00 p.m. in south-west Alaska, 300 miles from Anchorage, near the town of Aleknagik. The cause of the crash was unclear, though flights at Dillingham are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather. The plane, a DeHavilland DHC-3T, was owned by communications company GCI. Alaskan officials reported that nine people were aboard the plane and “it appears that there were five fatalities,” National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz told AP in Washington.
Rescuers arrived via helicopter and gave medical care to the four survivors, said Major Guy Hayes, a spokesman for Alaska’s National Guard. Hayes said the Guard was called to the area about 20 miles north of Dillingham around 7 p.m. Monday after a passing aircraft saw the downed plane. But severe weather has hampered search and rescue efforts. The National Weather Service reported rain and fog, 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 later. At least three crash victims were being airlifted to Anchorage, Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks Rupp said. She said volunteers hiked into the crash site Monday night and provided medical aid until rescuers arrived.
The National Transportation Safety Board has launched a Go Team to investigate last night’s airplane crash near Dillingham, Alaska. Senior air safety investigator Clint Johnson, from the NTSB’s Anchorage regional office, will serve as Investigator-in-Charge. He will be assisted by investigators from the Alaska office and from NTSB headquarters in Washington D.C. NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman is accompanying the team and will serve as spokesperson for the on-scene investigation.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus said the plane took off at 2 p.m. Monday from a GCI corporate site on Lake Nerka, heading to the Agulowak Lodge on Lake Aleknagik. He did not know if that was the final destination or a refueling stop. The GCI lodge is made of logs and sits on a lake, and photos show a stately main lodge room with a large imposing stone fireplace, a leather sofa and a mounted caribou head on the wall. Fergus said the plane was flying by visual flight rules, and was not required to file a flight plan.
Senator Stevens was also one of two survivors of a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and several others. Before the crash, Stevens is reported to have spoken of a premonition that he would die in a plane crash.
A Second World War veteran, he was appointed to the Senate in 1968 and served longer than any other Republican in history. He lost his re-election bid in 2008 by a tiny margin after he was convicted on corruption charges related to gifts from an oil services company. The case was later thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.
While often gruff and short-tempered with staff, reporters and even other senators, the man known to Alaskans as “Uncle Ted” rose to become one of Washington’s most powerful Republicans. “I don’t lose my temper,” he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1994. “I always know where it is.” When Critics called for his resignation after a Los Angels Times Story detailed how Stevens became a millionaire investigating in companies he helped secure government contracts, he said: “If they think I am going to resign because of a story in a newspaper, they’re crazy.” (Associated Press)
Among his duties, the moderate Republican headed the key Senate Appropriations Committee, which doled out billions of federal dollars each year to states and communities. He became known for the proposed “Bridge to Nowhere,” which became a symbol of out-of control “pork barrel” spending. The now-abandoned project would have linked the small town of Ketchikan to its island airport at a cost of $398 million. (Vancouver Sun) Transport by small plane, including seaplanes, is common in Alaska and the crash is the third in less than two weeks in the state.
The White House said Obama administration officials were closely watching the news out of Alaska. The former Alaska governor and fellow republican Sarah Palin described Stevens, who won several medals as a pilot in the far east during the second world war, in glowing terms. “He is a warrior, an Alaskan hero, a world war two vet who dedicated his life to his country. He is one of our heroes up here,” she said. (The Guardian)
Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Alaskans to join her in prayer for all those aboard the aircraft and their families, as did Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. He called the plane crash tragic. Begich’s father, Nick Begich, who was Alaska’s only congressman in 1972, was killed when his plane disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska with then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana. In his farewell speech to the Senate he said: “I look only forward and I still see the day when I can remove the cloud that currently surrounds me.” (Associated Press)
Ted Stevens remarried two years after the crash that killed his first wife. He and his second wife, Catherine, have a daughter named Lily.