Rescue crew recalls dramatic moment they found survivors of Alaska plane crash

Last Updated Jul 11, 2018 10:45 PM EDT

WASHINGTON --  A Coast Guard crew is describing the conditions they faced in order to reach 11 plane crash survivors on the side of a mountain in Alaska Tuesday. The pilot, 72-year-old Mike Hudgins, told National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators he essentially became disoriented after encountering a cloud ceiling at 1,100 feet and deteriorating weather conditions. He realized too late the mountains were rising around them, and he reported attempting to climb to avoid the terrain but was unsuccessful. 

Pilot Joe Plunkett had been searching for an hour in deteriorating weather when he and his crew spotted the wreckage about 2,000 feet up Mount Jumbo.

"You are desperately searching for somebody in the fog and rain and slowly a plane kind of materializes, we're as excited to find them as they are to see us," Plunkett said. "We're like, 'Holy smoke, we found these guys, let's get them out of here.'"

Hovering as low as 100 feet over the crash, the chopper lowered rescue swimmer Tony Puglia through clouds so thick the pilots couldn't see the ground.

"I try to expect the worst and then, when I got down there, I was pleasantly surprised. I mean, where this aircraft crashed, I think it was by the grace of God that the injuries weren't, like, incredibly severe," Puglia said.

When asked what people were doing when he got there, Puglia said there was a lot of "high fiving going on."

"One guy thought he was going to die. He was looking at a picture of his grandson," he explained.

The 10 passengers were on a fishing trip when the de Havilland Otter crashed.

Hudgins, the pilot, brought the plane down on a rocky stretch of mountain and called for help. With the weather getting worse, the Coast Guard crew decided to rescue everyone at once.

"I came up with the last person and it was literally like we had about five minutes to get out of there," Puglia said. "We were very, very low on fuel."

Plunkett admits they were worried, saying "we were sweating for the whole time."

The company that owns the plane has a good safety record, and is cooperating with the NTSB. One passenger was critically injured, four have been transferred to a Seattle hospital, but all are expected to survive.

The NTSB will begin work to recover the aircraft. 

  • Kris Van Cleave

    Kris Van Cleave was appointed CBS News Transportation Correspondent in September 2015 and is based in Washington, D.C.