As their plane prepared to leave McGrath, Donald and Rosemarie felt the split-second whirl of apprehension familiar to all village fliers. Would the weather hold? Would this be the flight where something went wrong?
Rosemarie, in her first trimester, felt sick, her stomach queasy as they lifted off. The Kuskokwim River disappeared hundreds and then thousands of feet below. Donald watched for moose and bears. The children sat with books. Even with little turbulence, Rosemarie vomited. Julia Walker, belted beside her, helped Rosemarie clean up and then retreated into her iPod.
Within minutes after takeoff, the plane was encased in clouds. “This is pretty bad,” Donald remembers the pilot saying. All he could see was white. Donald swiveled in his seat, disappointed. “Sorry, babe. We’re probably going to turn around,” he told Rosemarie.
“No big deal,” she replied.
Chase dipped the plane close to the ground, looking for clearer sky. The Cessna climbed and dipped again. Then the pilot must have spotted something to his left, Donald says. The plane banked hard to the right; the clouds broke just in time for Donald to see the mountainside fill the windshield. “Please, God, protect my family,” he prayed.
HOWLS IN THE DARKNESS
Less than an hour had passed since the crash. Rosemarie could hear birds chirping. It was still light out but growing colder. Donald crawled to the front of the plane and tried to make radio contact to call for help. No one answered. He pressed the button on the emergency locator again and again.
The device sent a satellite message to the pilot’s family in Wasilla at 8:30 p.m. The airline, Aniak-based Inland Aviation Services, immediately launched planes to search Chase’s flight path. Bad weather cut short the effort, but pilots in other small planes in the area told the Alaska Air National Guard that they had heard
a distress signal from an emergency locator transmitter.
Donald could hear, but not see, airplanes above the clouds. The family knew they were only a 20-minute flight from McGrath. Surely they would hear the chop of a rescue helicopter soon. The combination of wind and rain left Donald as cold as he had ever felt. Sometime before nightfall, he heard wolves howling in the fog. “Everybody started screaming,” he says. “I was just begging everybody to stop screaming.”
The sun went down at about 10:45 p.m. The wolves never appeared. Neither did the helicopter.