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.

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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.

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