Plane Crash Survivors in the Alaskan Wilderness

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

Donnie Mckenzie with Rosemarie, Willow and Donald Evans
David Wright

The last thing Donald Evans remembered was shouting, “Pull up!” to the pilot seated beside him before the single-engine propeller plane slammed into a low mountain 37 miles west of McGrath, Alaska. One look now told him the pilot was dead. So was the woman sitting behind Donald, a popular schoolteacher named Julia Walker, who lived in Anvik, Alaska. Donald twisted in the six-seat Cessna 207 and looked behind him. The plane, hardly larger than a minivan, had snapped in half on the mountainside. He couldn’t see or hear his two children, Mckenzie, eight, and Donnie, ten. His wife, Rosemarie, 32 and two months pregnant, was slumped motionless in her seat. Donald’s mind filled with a single, horrifying thought: Everybody’s gone.

Still buckled in his seat, Donald, 32, tried to get his bearings. It was pouring rain. Some of his teeth were missing. Later he’d find out that the impact had broken his back, legs, feet, and jaw.

Then Donald heard Mckenzie crying somewhere outside the crumpled Cessna. She’d been sitting in the back row before the crash, and the impact had thrown her 20 feet from the plane. Although Donald didn’t know it yet, his daughter’s arm was broken and her intestines were severed, possibly by her seat belt.

Despite his injuries, Donald crawled out to Mckenzie, who lay soaking wet in the rain. Worried about hypothermia, Donald removed his daughter’s wet clothing and wrapped her in a quilt the family had packed. Together father and daughter dragged themselves back to the plane, where Rosemarie was starting to regain consciousness.

Her back, feet, ankles, and right arm were broken. She was terrified that the baby she was carrying had been hurt. The only part of her body that she could move was her left arm, which she used to reach out the window, feeling behind her. Donnie was somewhere back there, alive; now they could hear him screaming.

After the crash, Donnie had rolled partially beneath the plane before the floorboards came to a rest on his legs and waist, trapping him. “There was no way I was going to be able to yank him up,” Donald says. He heaved himself to the roof and crawled to Donnie, letting himself fall from the top of the Cessna to land beside his son.

Donald feared the boy might die if he wasn’t stabilized and his head wasn’t elevated. He noticed a splintered log nearby from a willow tree that had probably snapped in the crash. “I was able to take that and brace him,” Donald says. Then he found the pruning tool he’d packed and used it to cut away the floorboards to stop them from crushing Donnie. “Give Daddy a couple more minutes,” he reassured his son. “I’ll cut you out of here.”

Meanwhile, Rosemarie was slipping in and out of consciousness in the middle row, coughing up dark blood. “I can’t breathe!” she yelled. Donald turned his attention to her.

His adrenaline had ebbed, and now he was feeling the pain of his injuries. He forced himself to crawl back to the front of the plane and shift the pilot’s body away from his wife.

Donald and Rosemarie had been headed to Anvik, the rural Yukon River village 350 miles northwest of Anchorage, to begin their first year of teaching. It was August 13, 2011.

They had grown up one county apart in upstate New York. They were 15 when they first met at a Poughkeepsie movie theater and started dating. At 17, Donald joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

During a 30-day leave, Donald told Rosemarie he wanted to visit someplace spectacular. He caught a flight to Fort Richardson, near Anchorage, Alaska, on a military plane. “Within the first four or five hours after landing, I knew this was it,” Donald says. When he arrived back home, his truck had Alaska plates.

After four years in the Marines, Donald enlisted again, this time with the Army. The couple hoped to be stationed in Alaska, but Donald was sent to Iraq instead. When Donald’s military service ended in 2007, he and Rosemarie settled in Wasilla, Alaska, and enrolled in Alaska Pacific University. After graduating with teaching degrees, they were hired to job-share a teaching position at the Blackwell School, a two-classroom elementary school in Anvik.

A village of fewer than 100 people, Anvik is where the southern route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race meets the Yukon River. Snowmobiles outnumber pickup trucks. A head of lettuce sells for $5.50.

The family arrived in the village in June 2011, weeks before the start of school, eager to start their Alaska adventure. Their first flight in a small plane was smooth, and the weather was sunny. “As soon as we landed, a big black bear ran across the airstrip and stood up,” Donald says.

They met Julia Walker, the only other teacher in the village. Donnie and Mckenzie made fast friends with the kids in town, and Donald spent the summer erecting the school’s new playground set. At night, they played basketball in the school gymnasium.

A week before classes were scheduled to begin, the teachers flew to the district headquarters in McGrath for a series of meetings. On a hunch, Rosemarie bought a pregnancy test at the McGrath general store and confirmed her pregnancy. The prospect of another baby left her and Donald excited and nervous. Suddenly the decision to share a single teaching job, rather than moving to a district where they could each earn a full salary, made more sense. Donald would be able to teach during Rosemarie’s maternity leave.

At the end of the week, the family packed groceries and school supplies in the little Cessna and waited for a break in the weather to fly back to Anvik. Pilot Ernie Chase, 66, had grown up in Anvik and flown the route countless times. Shortly after 7 p.m., he decided they had an opening.

Map of plane crash
Peter Oumanski

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.

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.

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. Also, read this story about a man who survived a plane crash.

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.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest