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Hope Remains for Savvy Copter Crew

ANCHORAGE-- The daughters of John Stumpff, a nurse on the air ambulance that vanished Monday over Prince William Sound, are keeping their spirits up by reminding each other how resourceful their dad is.

He s very MacGyver-ish, said Crystal Roman-Stumpff. We re all making little jokes like he ll take the helicopter apart and fix it.

Out at the Butte Fire Department, the guys aren t giving up on paramedic Cameron Carter either. They ve watched him grow from teenage Young Explorer to professional life-saver.

We re all hoping he comes out of this, fire chief Charles VonGunten said. A lot of our guys have seen him grow up. He s got a special place in our department. He s one of our brothers.

Searchers for Stumpff, Carter and two others aboard the missing LifeGuard helicopter got a boost in resources and a break in the weather Wednesday but found no sign of the helicopter or the four people on board:

* Patient Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova. McDowell, who had a mastectomy this summer, was weakened by low-blood pressure and fainting spells and on her way to Providence Medical Center. Her husband, Gary, whose request to join her on the flight was denied, arrived safely in Anchorage Monday night.

* Pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna. Brabham seems to be relatively new to Alaska; he hasn t yet filed for a Permanent Fund Dividend, according to a public data base. A nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna said LifeGuard crew members respect Brabham s skills. He s gone through some nasty stuff and made some good calls, Jane Faulkner said.

* Stumpff, 47, of Sterling. He came to Alaska about five years ago as a traveling nurse and was based in Nome before moving to the Peninsula, a friend said. He was an adrenaline junkie, said Richard Driscoll, an assistant fire chief in Dover, N.H., where Stumpff worked for 14 years. He did a lot of scuba diving, a lot of ice diving, and in Florida he was an instructor in coral reef diving.

* Carter, 24, of Kenai. He grew up in the Butte and began volunteering at the fire department there when he was about 14. He worked for Central Emergency Services as a paramedic and, on days off, flew with LifeGuard. When he wasn t in Soldotna, he came home, and when we went on a (fire) run, he always came with us, VonGunten said.

On Wednesday, a day after a raging blizzard made a visual search all but impossible, the weather improved enough to get helicopters in the air. Additional resources arrived in the skies over Esther Island, the last known location of the LifeGuard.

The Alaska State Troopers deployed Helo-1, and the Valdez Civil Air Patrol joined the search. Already on the scene were the Alaska Air National Guard, the Coast Guard and three private fishing boats from Whittier.

The search is ongoing, spokesman McHugh Pierre of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said Wednesday afternoon.

Misinformation early in the day led to false hope that searchers had picked up a signal from an emergency locator, he said.

When the Coast Guard cutter first got there and started doing a radio search, they found a squelch on the radar. They followed it for 30 seconds and it stopped, Pierre said. I can t emphasize enough that it was not an ELT -- it was simply the squelch from a CB radio.

Heavy snow and strong winds kept Pave Hawk and Jayhawk helicopters grounded Tuesday, but holes in the clouds Wednesday morning allowed them and a Hercules C-130 to do a visual search of the Esther Island coastline and surrounding waters.

The LifeGuard was southeast of Esther Island, maybe halfway through its 150-mile journey, when it was last heard from. The BK117 left Cordova at 4:40 p.m. Monday; its last contact with dispatchers came about 40 minutes later at 5:18 p.m.

For three days now, people in Alaska and the Lower 48 have waited for news.

In Cordova, where the McDowells run the Cordova Rose Lodge and Gaye dazzles her friends with her quilting prowess, prayer chains are working overtime. In Georgia, her children and other relatives keep vigil.

We are distracting ourselves by thumbing through photo albums with the neighbors, e-mailed son-in-law Jack Freeman.

Fire fighters in New Hampshire, a wife and daughters in Florida, and sisters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Ohio are upbeat and scared at the same time.

It s very surreal, said Roman-Stumpff, 25, the oldest of Stumpff s two adult daughters. It s nighttime here. This is the third night, and we re worried. It s hard, but we re optimistic. We heard they had at least a week of survival gear.

Stumpff, Carter and Brabham have all been establishing roots around Soldotna, Faulkner said.

Stumpff bought a place in Sterling with no running water or electricity, and has since added both amenities, Driscoll said.

Brabham has been looking at property in Funny River and collecting horseshoes to make racks as gifts for friends, Faulkner said.

And Carter just installed new counter tops in his Kenai kitchen, she said.

All three are locals, Faulkner said. It s tough. We miss them, and we re waiting for them.

Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg.

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