Crash story unfolds as deaths mourned, survival celebrated
KALISPELL, Mont. – When the fog rolls into the mountains of western Montana, all a pilot can do is climb and hope nothing emerges from the clouds in his path.This week, something did, and all five people aboard a small plane were given up for dead.Two days later, Matthew Ramige, hobbled by a broken back and severe burns, and Jodee Hogg, bruised and burned with a sprained ankle, emerged from the wilderness after spending 29 hours hiking five miles to get off the mountain west of Glacier National Park to reach a highway for help.Neither survivor has given an interview to the media, but from their hospital beds they have spoken to law officers, medical workers and family members.Hogg, 23, and Ramige, 29, were among four Forest Service workers on board the plane headed for the Big Bear-Bob Marshall Wilderness Monday to survey vegetation and fix telecommunications equipment.But soon after takeoff, pilot Jim Long, 60, found himself caught in stormy weather. The peaks of the Rockies can be treacherous due to unpredictable winds, and a blanket of low and thick clouds makes it worse, veteran pilots say.Long’s plane was unable to clear a ridge, so he began to turn around, Hogg told a local sheriff. Without navigation aids, the clouds can become blinding.”You can’t see forward, you can’t see behind you, you can’t see right or left,” said Robbie Holman of Whitefish, a pilot of 40 years. “So all you can do is go up. You don’t do that unless things have closed in so bad you don’t have any choice.”As Long began to turn, the plane hit Mt. Liebig, above the timberline at about 6,500 feet, just 15 minutes after takeoff.The plane clipped a rock and broke into pieces, with the front portion flipping over and coming to rest upside down. By that time, the plane was on fire.”Even before they stopped, there was fire in the aircraft,” Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont said Hogg told him. “She recalls tremendous pressure, heat and then a flash.”At least four of the five people survived the initial impact.But the flames were growing. Hogg opened a door, unlatched her seat belt and fell from the overturned plane onto the snowy ground. “She turns around, reaches for Matt and his foot was caught,” Dupont said. “She was pulling on him and got him out.”Hogg said she checked on her friend, Davita Bryant, 32. “I saw blood in her hair and on her face and she wasn’t moving,” she told Dupont.Meanwhile, Long had unbuckled Ken Good, 58, and pushed him from the plane. The fire was “just roaring” by the time Hogg, Ramige and Good had gotten out, Dupont said. Long and Bryant never did.Bryant, along with Hogg and Ramige, were employed by the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Station in Fort Collins, Colo., but worked out of its Ogden, Utah office.Long, Ramige and Hogg, some of their clothes burned off, huddled together to share body heat that night as temperatures fell to 20 degrees. They assembled a crude shelter from pieces of the plane. They had no food, no matches for a fire, and Ramige’s back injury made it difficult for him to stoop over for water from streams.By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Good had died.Hogg and Ramige then began their walk off the mountain – they knew a highway was relatively close because the plane had been flying along the road before it crashed. They positioned the plane doors and engine cowling in the snow hoping the red stripes on the debris would draw the eye of searchers once the clouds lifted.They also thought their footprints leading away from the site would be a sign of survivors. But by the time searchers reached the site the next day, the snow had melted.The craft had cracked into pieces and burned, leaving officials with no sign that anyone had escaped.After 29 hours of walking, apparently in excruciating pain, Hogg and Ramige found a trail Wednesday that led them to a highway. There, a motorist who saw them left the pair, drove to the nearest phone and called for help, said paramedic Lance Westgard, one of those responding.Westgard said Hogg wanted only to talk to her mom and dad. He recalled her saying, “They probably think I’m dead.””Well, yeah, they do,” Westgard told her.Ramige’s family was putting together his obituary, and his grandmother was making funeral arrangements.Ramige was in serious condition Saturday at a Seattle hospital for a broken spine and severe burns. Hogg was being treated for burns and bruises at a Kalispell hospital; her family said she was in good condition.Officials, shocked at the discovery of survivors, have struggled to explain how four people survived the initial impact of a plane crash officials had initially declared was “unsurvivable.”John Gisselbrecht, the air search coordinator for Diamond Air Search and Rescue in Kalispell, said there were indications that the crash was not so violent that no one could have survived.”We have an issue that they declared them dead without having proof,” Gisselbrecht said. “That’s a serious issue. You would declare them missing until you have concrete evidence that they are dead.”Flathead County Undersheriff Chuck Curry, one of the first on the scene of the crash, said he feels “personally terrible” about erroneously telling two families their loved ones had died in the crash, and failing to look for survivors.He said he told the families Wednesday night: “If you want to be mad at somebody, I’m your guy. I’m so sorry. I’m so happy they’re alive and I’m so sorry we weren’t out looking.”
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