Grim Details Emerge from Stevens Crash Site

This image provided by the Alaska State Police shows the wreckage of an amphibious plane carrying former Sen. Ted Stevens which crashed into a remote mountainside during a fishing trip, killing the state's most beloved political figure and four others and stranding the survivors on a rocky, brush-covered slope overnight. AP photo/Alaska State Police)
AP Photo
Updated at 8:56 p.m. ET

Former Senator Ted Stevens lay dead in the mangled fuselage of the plane. A 13-year-old boy escaped death but watched his father die a few feet away. Medical workers spent the miserable night tending to survivors' broken bones amid a huge slick of fuel that coated a muddy mountainside.

The gruesome details of the plane crash that killed Stevens and four others emerged as investigators tried to figure out how the float plane crashed into a mountain during a fishing trip. Three teenagers and their parents were on the plane.

Among those who survived is former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, who is now the CEO of defense contractor EADS North America. Former NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said O'Keefe, 54, and his teenaged son had broken bones and other injuries.

Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters Wednesday that investigators were still unable to interview crash survivors because of their medical conditions. She also said that investigators didn't arrive at the crash site until about 7 p.m. Eastern time.

Authorities were studying weather patterns to understand if overcast skies, rain and gusty winds played a role in a crash that claimed the life of the most revered politician in Alaska history.

Finding the cause of the crash will be difficult, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports from Washington. The plane, a 53-year-old De Havilland Otter, was not equipped with any black box recorders. Also, there are no radar or air traffic control tapes to help explain what went wrong, so investigators will piece together a probable cause by studying the wreckage.

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Stevens, a Republican, was remembered as a towering political figure who brought billions of dollars to the state during his 40 years in the Senate - a career that ended amid a corruption trial in 2008. He was later cleared of the charges.

A pilot who was one of the first to arrive at the scene described a horrific scene of airplane wreckage, fuel, rainy weather, dead bodies and frightened survivors.

As he helped shuttle a doctor and two emergency medical technicians to the scene about three hours after the crash, Tom Tucker described seeing a survivor still strapped in the front seat with the nose of the plane disintegrated. His head was cut, and his legs appeared to be broken.

"The front of the aircraft was gone," Tucker said. "He was just sitting in the chair."

He and other responders made a tarp tent over the missing cockpit to keep him dry. It was rainy and cold, and he believes the passengers' heavy duty waders protected them when they went into shock. Temperatures ranged from about 48 degrees to 50 degrees overnight at Dillingham.

Master Sgt. Jonathan Davis, one of the first National Guardsmen to reach the crash site, told ABC television that the waders helped the injured by acting "as sort of a survival-type blanket," keeping body heat in and water out.

The flights at Dillingham are often perilous through the mountains, even in good weather. Hersman said weather conditions at the time of the accident included light rain, clouds and gusty winds.

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The federal investigation is still in its early stages, and it's too early to say what caused the crash, Hersman said.

"I think it's too early to make any judgments about what may or may not have transpired because we have very little information to go on right now," she told CBS' "The Early Show" Wednesday. "And so until we gather that information, we're going to be looking at everything. We're going to be looking at the weather. We're going to be looking at operations. We're going to be looking at the aircraft, at the experience of the pilot. So, we haven't ruled anything out at this point in time and everything's on the table."

Hersman said the group had eaten lunch at a lodge and boarded a 1957 red-and-white float plane between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. local time for a trip to a salmon fishing camp.

Lodge operators called the fish camp at 6 p.m. to inquire when the party would be returning for dinner, but were told that they never showed up. Civilian aircraft were dispatched, and pilots quickly spotted the wreckage a few miles from the lodge, Hersman said.

The doctor and medics were flown to the area and hiked to the wreckage as fog and rain blanketed the area and nightfall set in, making it impossible for rescue officials to reach the scene until daybreak.

The Federal Aviation Administration said the DeHavilland DHC-3T was registered to Anchorage-based General Communications Inc., a phone and Internet company.

The victims were identified as Stevens; pilot Theron "Terry" Smith, 62; William "Bill" Phillips Sr.; Dana Tindall, 48, an executive with GCI; and her 16-year-old daughter Corey Tindall.

The four survivors were O'Keefe and his son, Kevin; William "Willy" Phillips Jr., 13; and Jim Morhard, of Alexandria, Virginia. They were taken to Providence Hospital in Anchorage with "varying degrees of injuries," Alaska State Troopers said on Tuesday.

Hersman said it was "absolutely critical" for investigators to talk to the survivors because they are our best source of information about what happened."

But she added that "our first priority now is to make sure they get the medical attention they need."

Sean O'Keefe was listed in critical condition Wednesday. His son, Kevin O'Keefe, and Morhard were listed in serious condition. The hospital said the younger Phillips was not listed in its directory, and it wasn't immediately clear where he was.

Stevens and O'Keefe were fishing companions and longtime Washington colleagues who worked together on the Senate Appropriations Committee that the Republican lawmaker led for several years. Stevens became a mentor to the younger O'Keefe and they remained close friends over the years. Morhard and the elder Phillips also worked with Stevens in Washington.

Plane crashes in Alaska are somewhat common because of the treacherous weather and mountainous terrain. Many parts of the state are not accessible by roads, forcing people to travel by air to reach their destinations.

With rough terrain and foggy, often wet and windy conditions, 22 percent of all small plane crashes that happen in the U.S. occur in Alaska, reports Andrea Gusty from CBS affiliate KTVA in Anchorage.

Stevens was one of two survivors in a 1978 plane crash at Anchorage International Airport that killed his wife, Ann, and several others.

Stevens was a legend in his home state, where he was known as "Uncle Ted." The wiry octogenarian was appointed in December 1968 and became the longest-serving Republican in Senate history.