Plane Crash Survivors in the Alaskan Wilderness

Dense clouds obscuring his way, a pilot flies into a mountain. How could this family survive?

By Kyle Hopkins from Anchorage Daily News
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

Donald and Willow

David Wright

Rosemarie gripped Donnie’s hand, and Donald held Mckenzie. As darkness fell, Donald yelled to his family every few seconds and tried to get them to yell back. He was afraid that they would die if they fell asleep.

To stay awake, the family sang a children’s poem Donald and Rosemarie used to read to Donnie when he was a baby: “These little hands are held in prayer. To thank you God for being there …”

An Air National Guard HC-130 left Anchorage at 1:25 a.m., tracking the emergency locator signal. It flew over the crash site at about 3 a.m. But cloud cover prevented rescuers from seeing the wreckage. After two hours, the HC-130 returned to Anchorage to refuel. The family could hear the plane circling. Then silence.

By morning Donald was afraid the search had gone on for so long that it would shift from a rescue mission to a recovery effort. “We didn’t have much longer,” he says. He found a bag of clementine oranges the family had purchased in McGrath and tossed one to each family member. “Here, guys, this will bring a little sunshine into our lives right now,” he said.

It was a last meal. After they ate, Donald told the family they could go to sleep. “I guess he just wanted us to be at peace,” Rosemarie says.

The family wasn’t aware that at 9 a.m., a National Guard HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter had left Anchorage to return to the crash site. The refueled HC-130 followed minutes later. Less than five minutes after eating their oranges, the family heard the whoosh of helicopter blades.

Pararescuers, known in the Alaska Air National Guard as Guardian Angels, hit the ground at 11:05 a.m., after a break in the clouds. Two rescuers dropped from the helicopter, which was unable to land at the sloping, wooded crash site. Another three jumped from the HC-130 to a nearby field.

“We’re going to help you,” the rescuers said as they studied the crash site.

“My wife’s pregnant. Take her first,” Donald told them.

The Evans family had been stranded for more than 15 hours when guardsmen hoisted Rosemarie to the Pavehawk in a long basket. She was flown to McGrath, where she waited for the helicopter to pick up the rest of the family. Then they were all flown to a hospital in Anchorage.

Surgeons removed Mckenzie’s appendix and reattached her intestines. They cut Donnie from ear to ear to pull a section of his skull back in place. Rosemarie and Donald were confined to wheelchairs because of broken backs and told that their unborn child might not make it.

As the weeks passed, the warnings stopped. Rosemarie—rods and screws still lodged in her back—gave birth to a healthy baby exactly seven months after the crash. The couple named the girl Willow for the tree branch that Donald used to save his son, Julia for the teacher who lost her life in the crash, and Grace “because it’s by the grace of God that we’re all here,” says Rosemarie. Willow Julia Grace Evans is now a healthy toddler.

After the crash, the Evanses moved to Searsport, Maine, to be closer to family in New York as they heal. “A piece of us is still in Alaska and probably always will be,” says Rosemarie. “But our circumstances have led us back east.”

Mckenzie and Donnie have recovered quickly from their injuries and are thriving in their new environment. Mckenzie has taken up the saxophone and loves soccer and horseback riding. Donnie loves to run.

Donald and Rosemarie haven’t fared as well physically, though their attitudes remain upbeat. A string of surgeries has kept the couple from returning to work—they get by on money from the airline’s insurance. “We will never have full use of our bodies,” says Rosemarie. “But we choose happiness. We endured for one another.”

To read the original Anchorage Daily News coverage, click here.

David Wright

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