One Last Look

As the sad search on Mt. Hood ended yesterday, correspondent John Blackstone filed this dispatch from the scene. – Ed.

(CBS)
For days the little airport in Hood River, Oregon had been busy with search planes and National Guard helicopters coming and going in support of the search for the missing climbers on Mount Hood. The road into the airport was lined with satellite trucks and a crowd of cameras awaited each news conference by Sheriff Joe Wampler of Hood River County, the man running the search.

But on Wednesday morning it was clear the search was over, there would be no miraculous rescue, the climbers were not going to come off the mountain alive. The last National Guard helicopter had returned to its base. The satellite trucks were gone. The little airport was pretty much empty.

I went out to the airport in search of one more story. I stopped into the only place with the lights on, a small charter company that runs flight tours over Mount Hood. I thought I might be able to hire a plane for a short flight over the mountain, some video that might help tell the story of the end of the search.

But the man behind the counter told me there would be no flights anytime soon. There was too much fog hanging in, the ceiling was too low and bad weather was on its way, fog and freezing rain. It was too dangerous to try to go look at the mountain I was told.

On the other side of the airfield, though, I saw a small single engine plane being pushed out of a hangar. It was somebody foolish enough or brave enough to go flying in these conditions.

I quickly drove over to the other side. The little yellow plane, a two seater Piper Cub, had a emblem painted on its side: "Hood River County Sheriff". The prop was already turning. In the pilot's seat sat the man from all those news conferences, Joe Wampler, Sheriff of Hood River County.

The plane was already moving toward the runway. As Wampler lifted off he turned the plane toward Mount Hood and soon disappeared into the low clouds.

It was more than an hour until I again heard the engine of small plane, then saw it drop out of the clouds and land. When Sheriff Wampler climbed out of the cockpit he explained that he had just taken the last search flight over the mountain. Said it was something he had to do himself before he could officially tell the families of the missing climbers that the search was over.

He had been hoping he would see something from the air that would have given him a reason to keep the search going. But he saw nothing. He would now prepare to officially declare this a recovery mission, a hope that sometime the climbers' bodies would be found and would be brought off the mountain.

It's not the way the Sheriff Joe Wampler wanted the search to end. He complained about getting a bug in his eye. But it looked like he was wiping away a tear.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.