Medevac Flight Vanishes in Alaska


Beth Bragg | | Thursday, December 6, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- As poor visibility and blowing snow stymied search efforts Tuesday for an air ambulance missing over Prince William Sound since Monday evening, Cordova prayed for the four people aboard, including the one from their community.

Gay McDowell, co-owner of the Cordova Rose Lodge, was on her way to Providence Alaska Medical Center to be treated for complications following breast cancer surgery, the wife of the family minister said Tuesday.

Last night when we heard, we called our prayer chain, and then we called the prayer chains for the other churches, said Susan Harding, whose husband, Richard, is pastor at the Cordova Community Baptist Church.

The fact this was a savior flight, going to the hospital -- we just can t believe it s true.

The LifeGuard helicopter left Cordova at 4:40 p.m. Monday with McDowell, nurse John Stumpff, a paramedic and a pilot aboard.

The BK 117 Eurocopter seemed fine when the so-far unnamed pilot contacted LifeGuard dispatchers at 5:18 p.m. with a normal progress report, hospital spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said.

The crew said it was southeast of Esther Island. When expected progress reports didn t come at 5:28 or 5:38, Providence reported the flight overdue, Hultberg said.

The weather turned nasty quickly Monday afternoon in Prince William Sound, according to reports from the National Weather Service and the owner of a helicopter service in Girdwood.

It was a very, very unusual weather phenomenon, said Keith Essex, owner of Alpine Air. A lot of times the weather will come off the Gulf of Alaska; it will have a direction it will move in from. But this didn t come from a specific area. All of a sudden a cloud formed over the mountains, it descended and it started snowing. It created its own weather. It was actually very scary.

With a blizzard raging, an air search began around 10:30 p.m. Monday. A Coast Guard cutter left Cordova about 5:30 a.m. Tuesday to begin a water search.

In Cordova, word spread that McDowell, who owns a lodge with her husband, Gary, was the patient aboard the flight.

On Monday, the McDowells headed to Anchorage, Gay on the air ambulance and Gary on a commercial flight so he could be with his wife at the hospital, the Rev. Richard Harding of Cordova said.

She left first, Harding said. He wanted to go on the helicopter with her but they said he couldn t.

Hospital officials met McDowell at the airport to tell him his wife s flight was missing, Harding said.

On Tuesday, Outside relatives of flight nurse Stumpff were calling Alaska, looking for information about the search. A sister in Ohio and another in Alabama wanted to know if searchers had seen or heard an emergency locator beacon.

They didn t, said Col. Dave Lowell, director of operations for the Alaska Air National Guard.

Poor visibility limited the search abilities of a C-130 Hercules and kept National Guard Pavehawk helicopters grounded, Lowell said.

We cannot get into any approaches to Prince William Sound, and when we do there s no visibility, Lowell said. The ceiling s down to the ground, and the helicopters can t get over Thompson Pass.

Storms and rotten visibility hindered the water search too.

The Coast Guard cutter Sycamore, which spent the day searching around Esther Island, reported visibility of about 500 yards, Lowell said.

Three fishing boats from Whittier with Alaska state troopers aboard joined the search Tuesday afternoon. They were able to get closer to the coastline than the cutter, Lowell said, but those aboard saw no sign of the helicopter or the missing crew.

Providence operates LifeGuard, which leases aircraft from Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska. Stumpff and the paramedic work for Providence, and the pilot works for Evergreen, Hultberg said.

The BK 117 is based in Soldotna, and its medical staff is well known at Central Peninsula Hospital.

While they are not employees here, they work in our emergency room all the time. They re based here, hospital spokeswoman Kris Eriksen said. We re keeping our fingers crossed.

Lowell said the Sycamore would anchor overnight in Prince William Sound and begin searching again this morning.

There s always hope until a wreckage is found, he said. We ll proceed as if they re alive.

Find Beth Bragg online at

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