Medevac Debris, Body Found Near Whittier, Alaska


Lisa Demer | | Monday, December 10, 2007

WHITTIER, Alaska -- The body of a person from a missing air ambulance along with wreckage was found in Passage Canal near Whittier on Saturday afternoon, and the search for the three people still missing continues, Alaska State Troopers said.

The body of flight nurse John Stumpff, 47, of Sterling was located around 1:35 p.m. after washing up on shore near the debris, said Megan Peters, trooper spokeswoman.

A crew on an Alaska Air National Guard Pave Hawk helicopter spotted debris that they immediately suspected was from the missing LifeGuard helicopter, said McHugh Pierre, spokesman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which includes the National Guard.

The Pave Hawk got closer, and the crew confirmed there was wreckage and human remains, he said.

Both the remains and the debris -- which included the left sliding door from the LifeGuard helicopter -- were found on the north side of Passage Canal, which leads into Whittier, Pierre said. The door was the only piece immediately identifiable, he said.

It s not yet known where the LifeGuard helicopter went down. It vanished Monday evening about 40 minutes into a scheduled 90-minute flight between Cordova and Anchorage. The crew failed to make two regular 10-minute position updates and the helicopter was reported missing. Last known contact was at 5:18 p.m.

The debris was found along the likely route, Pierre said.

That s the flight pattern that people take to go through Portage Pass and on into Anchorage, he said.

Still missing: pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna; paramedic Cameron Carter, 24, of Kenai and the Butte; and patient Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova.

McDowell, co-owner of the Cordova Rose Lodge, was on her way to Providence Alaska Medical Center to be treated for complications after breast cancer surgery.

Families have been updated and next of kin for Stumpff has been notified, troopers said.

We are just an organization in mourning at this point. While we are still hopeful, we are very deeply in mourning over the loss of our colleague, John Stumpff, said Becky Hultberg, a spokeswoman for Providence Alaska Medical Center, which includes LifeGuard.

Stumpff came to Alaska about five years ago as a traveling nurse. He was based in Nome before moving to the Kenai Peninsula, a friend has said. He bought a place in Sterling with no running water or electricity but added both.

Troopers weren t ready to give up hope on the three still missing, but Peters acknowledged it doesn t look promising.

We keep praying for them, said Butte fire chief Charles Von Gunten. Carter grew up in the Butte, started volunteering with the Butte Fire Department as a teen, and still went on fire runs when he was in the area.

It doesn t look good but maybe the other people made it onto a beach and they re just waiting to be picked up, Von Gunten said.

Our folks always assume that people are living until we know otherwise, Pierre said.

Details were sparse Saturday evening. Peters said that troopers are trying to piece together what happened and that more information should come out on today.

This is by no means the end of the search effort. They are making arrangements and plans to see what needs to be done tomorrow, Peters said. Searchers headed in when it got dark Saturday and the effort was to resume at first light today, she said.

The debris is being turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board for its investigation into what went wrong.

It has been a massive search hampered by bad weather.

Midday Saturday, the ceiling lifted to about 1,000 feet, giving searchers much better visibility, Pierre said.

Once searchers in the Pave Hawk confirmed they had found a body, they went to Whittier and picked up troopers to take them to the scene, he said. Troopers also sent boats to the area. Stumpff s body has been turned over to the State Medical Examiner s Office.

The Alaska Air National Guard has had a C-130 on the scene as well as the Pave Hawk helicopter. The U.S. Coast Guard earlier launched the cutter Sycamore, but it returned to Cordova on Friday to restock and refuel. A Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter also was searching on Saturday, as was the trooper helicopter known as Helo-1, Pierre said at midday.

A fleet of small, private aluminum fishing boats from Whittier has helped in the search, as have volunteer pilots in the Valdez Civil Air Patrol. The Alaska Railroad sent snowmachines out after a motorist on the Seward Highway reported seeing something on Spencer Glacier, but that turned up nothing.

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