4 bodies found inside wreckage of missing plane

'Terrible loss for all the families'
2010-06-30T15:11:00Z 2010-09-21T16:37:04Z 4 bodies found inside wreckage of missing planeThe Associated Press The Associated Press
June 30, 2010 3:11 pm  • 

MOIESE — Authorities found four bodies inside the wreckage of a small plane Wednesday on a rugged hillside in northwestern Montana, bringing a tragic end to a 2 1/2-day search for a group of friends who went out sightseeing and never returned.

Family members awaiting word in Moiese, headquarters of the National Bison Range, broke down upon hearing of the deaths of pilot and recent University of Montana graduate Sonny Kless, law student Brian Williams and reporters Erika Hoefer and Melissa Weaver.

“It’s a terrible, terrible loss for all the families,” said Michelle Gentry, Kless’ aunt. “It’s just a tragedy. I think (Kless) was out doing something he loved to do.”

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopter discovered the 1968 Piper Arrow on Wednesday afternoon in the steep, densely wooded hillside about 80 miles south of Kalispell, just inside the Sanders County line. It was not far from the plane’s last known location.

An Air Force helicopter flew to the crash site near Revais Creek a couple of miles south of the Flathead River outside the bison range. Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman rappelled from the helicopter down to the rocky terrain to verify what the searchers already suspected.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified and will take over the investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration also has been contacted, Wrightsman said.

Authorities were trying to come up with a plan to remove the bodies from the crash site, said Lake County sheriff’s spokeswoman Carey Cooley. They didn’t believe they would be able to use a helicopter basket to aid in the recovery because of the terrain, so they plan to hike in today, Cooley said.

The four took off Sunday from Kalispell, flew over Glacier National Park and then south across Flathead Lake. Radar data last tracked them close to where the wreckage was found.

Kless’ mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her 25-year-old son got his pilot’s license about a year ago and had flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.

Thirty of Kless’ 100 hours of flight time were in the Piper Arrow, which he had rented Sunday, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.

Friends and family of the two men said both were committed environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts who had magnetic personalities.

“These both are just incredible people,” said Zack Porter, former president of the University of Montana’s Climate Action Now! program, a group formed to promote campus sustainability, which Kless and Williams helped found.

Kless of Missoula, had just graduated with a degree in environmental studies, while Williams, 28, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, was a former intern for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester who had just finished his first year of law school.

“Sen. Tester and Governor (Brian) Schweitzer both called today and were just incredibly supportive,” said Donna Williams, Brian’s mother.

“There are a lot of people helping out today who care about him,” Williams’ father, Gary Williams, said.

Kless was responsible for passage of one of the nation's first revolving energy loan funds, which generated $90,000 for energy efficiency improvements on campus, allowing students to take the lead on making UM a more sustainable campus, Porter said. Williams was looking forward to an ambitious legal career working on environmental issues, “and just was going to do great things,” he said.

Wendy Martin, Kless’ girlfriend, said Kless volunteered at Missoula’s Rattlesnake PEAS Farm community garden. She said he was active in numerous campus programs.

At 19, Kless was convicted of robbery, which Martin described as a mistake that occurred at a difficult time in life.

Matthew Fennel, a close friend of Kless’, said he was an amazing leader and student at UM.

“He led the charge for sustainability initiatives on campus and was just an exceptional person,” Fennel said.

Weaver, 23, was from Billings. Hoefer, 27, was from Beloit, Wis. Both women started at the Inter Lake in December. Hoefer covered business and Weaver cops and courts.

“Melissa and Erika were both very important parts of our newsroom,” said Rick Weaver, publisher of the Daily Inter Lake. “A newsroom is often like a big family, and they were part of that. They are going to be missed.

“It’s just so sad,” said Weaver, who is no relation to Melissa Weaver. “They both had such a bright future in front of them.”

Weaver came to the job from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism. Hoefer was a veteran reporter, having worked at the Beloit Daily News.

Clint Wolf, newsroom editor there, remembered an outgoing and vivacious young reporter, tall and lanky with striking red hair and a personality to match.

“It’s been very hard,” Wolf said. “People are grateful for closure, but it can’t be easy. It’s never easy to lose someone so young.”

Hoefer came from rural Wisconsin stock, Wolf said, with a firefighter father and a mom who worked at the local credit union. The family’s church has rallied in support, he said, and family friends planned to set up an account to help with travel and other costs.

Bill Orem, former editor of the UM student newspaper, remembered Weaver has stubborn, but in a good way — “she just didn’t give up on anything,” Orem said.

Orem hired Weaver to serve as his arts and outdoors editor.

“I needed one person funky enough and creative enough to write an arts section, and then someone who was explorer enough to take on an outdoors section, and Melissa was both,” he said.

Sean Breslin, another former student editor, said “people gravitated to her. She was always smiling, with this great attitude, and she knew so many people.”

“She had all these interests, far beyond journalism,” Orem said. “I guess she just knew life was too short.”

 


UPDATE 6:45 p.m. :  MOIESE — Authorities found four bodies inside the wreckage of a small plane Wednesday on a rugged hillside in northwestern Montana, bringing a tragic end to a 2½-day search for a group of friends who went out for an afternoon sightseeing trip and never returned.

Family members awaiting word in Moiese, headquarters of the National Bison Range, broke down upon hearing of the deaths of pilot and recent University of Montana graduate Sonny Kless, law student Brian Williams and newspaper reporters Erika Hoefer and Melissa Weaver.

"It's a terrible, terrible loss for all the families," said Michelle Gentry, Kless' aunt. "It's just a tragedy. I think (Kless) was out doing something he loved to do."

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security helicopter discovered a plane matching the description of the missing 1968 Piper Arrow on Wednesday afternoon in the steep, densely wooded hillside about 80 miles south of Kalispell, just inside the Sanders County line. It was not far from the plane's last known location.

An Air Force helicopter flew to the crash site near Revais Creek a couple of miles south of the Flathead River outside the bison range. Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman rappelled from the helicopter down to the rocky terrain to verify what the searchers already suspected.

"We did confirm it was the plane that we were looking for, and we also confirmed there were four deceased people in the plane," Wrightsman said. "Because of the ruggedness of the area, you almost had be right over top to see it."

The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified and will be taking over the investigation, and the Federal Aviation Administration also has been contacted, Wrightsman said.

Authorities were trying to come up with a plan to remove the bodies from the crash site, said Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman Carey Cooley.

Officials didn't believe they would be able to use a helicopter basket to aid in the recovery because of the terrain, so they plan to hike in Thursday, Cooley said.

The four sightseers took off Sunday from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park airspace and then headed south across Flathead Lake. Radar data last tracked them close to where the wreckage was found.

Kless' mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her 25-year-old son got his pilot's license about a year ago and had flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.

Thirty of Kless' 100 hours of flight time were in the Piper Arrow, which he had rented Sunday, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.

A roommate notified authorities when Weaver didn't return or call. The search got under way Monday, at first concentrating in the Flathead Valley, then shifting south after officials analyzed data from radar and cell phone towers.

The search involved more than 100 people using aircraft, boats, horses and all-terrain vehicles. Several relatives and friends of the missing joined the effort.

Weaver, 23, was from Billings. Hoefer, 27, was from Beloit, Wis. Both started reporting for the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell at the end of last year.

"Melissa and Erika were both very important parts of our newsroom," said Rick Weaver, publisher of the Daily Inter Lake. "A newsroom is often like a big family, and they were part of that. They are going to be missed."

Kless had been planning to teach English in Asia this year. Williams attended law school at the University of Montana.


UPDATE 5:45 p.m. : MOIESE— A Sanders County sheriff’s official says four bodies have been found in the wreckage of a plane in northwestern Montana.

Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman confirms the crashed plane is the one that has been missing since Sunday, when two Missoula men and two newspaper reporters from Kalispell went for an afternoon sightseeing tour and never returned.

Wrightsman rappelled from an Air Force helicopter to the crash site on a rugged, remote hillside Wednesday afternoon. He says he found the bodies inside the plane.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection aircraft discovered the crash earlier in the afternoon a couple of miles east of the Flathead River near the National Bison Range, some 80 miles south of Kalispell.

 

 


 

 

UPDATE 3:50 p.m. : HELENA — Searchers on Wednesday spotted what they believe to be the wreckage of a plane carrying four people who never returned from an afternoon sightseeing trip in northwestern Montana, a Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman said. There was no immediate word on survivors.

A pilot with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted the crash site from the air Wednesday afternoon in rough terrain just inside the Sanders County line, not far from the single-engine plane's last known location, spokeswoman Carey Cooley said.

The wrecked plane matches the description of the 1968 Piper Arrow missing since Sunday, but authorities have not been able to read the tail number, Cooley said.

A team from Malmstrom Air Force Base was taking authorities to the crash site and planned to lower searchers to the ground to confirm it is the missing plane and to check for survivors, she said.

Pilot Sonny Kless, friend Brian Williams and two newspaper reporters from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer, took off in the rented plane on a sightseeing trip Sunday afternoon.

They departed from Kalispell, flew through Glacier National Park and went south across Flathead Lake to their last known location west of the National Bison Range, according to radar data.

Federal Aviation Administration data put the plane's altitude at 300 feet before it disappeared. Witnesses who saw the blue-and-white plane told searchers they believe it was flying even lower, Cooley said.

The FAA's minimum allowable altitude is 500 feet.

Kless' mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her son, 25, obtained his pilot's license about a year ago and that he has flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.

Thirty of Kless' 100 hours of total flight time was in that Piper Arrow, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.

Weaver, 23, is from Billings, and Hoefer, 27, is from Beloit, Wis. Both began work at the end of last year.

Kless, 25, is a recent graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in environmental studies and communications. Williams attends law school at the University of Montana.


UPDATE 3:25 p.m. : HELENA — A Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman says searchers have spotted what appears to be the wreckage of a plane missing since Sunday that was carrying four people on a sightseeing trip.

There was no immediate word on survivors.

Spokeswoman Carey Cooley says a pilot with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection spotted the crash site Wednesday afternoon after 1:30 p.m. in rough terrain just inside the Sanders County line.

Cooley says the plane matches the description of the 1968 Piper Arrow missing since Sunday, but authorities have not been able to read the tail number.

Pilot Sonny Kless, friend Brian Williams and two newspaper reporters from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell, Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer, took off on a sightseeing trip on Sunday afternoon and never returned.


UPDATE 3:10 p.m. :

HELENA — Sheriff's spokeswoman says missing airplane found in northwestern Montana; no word on survivors.

Check back for updates on this developing story


UPDATED 2:25 p.m. :  The search for a missing plane entered its third day Wednesday as authorities assured the families and friends of the four people on board that they're "not quitting."

Searchers have unsuccessfully combed the rough terrain of northwestern Montana for the 1968 Piper Arrow single-engine plane rented Sunday afternoon by pilot Sonny Kless, friend Brian Williams and two newspaper reporters from the Daily Inter Lake of Kalispell: Melissa Weaver and Erika Hoefer.

The four took off from Kalispell on a sightseeing trip through Glacier National Park and went south across Flathead Lake to their last known location west of the National Bison Range. The ground search was concentrated along the Flathead River between Dixon and where the river meets the Clark Fork River.

"We're not quitting," Lake County Sheriff Lucky Larson said Tuesday night at the bison range's visitor center, some 80 miles south of Kalispell. "We want to find them."

Lake County sheriff's spokeswoman Carey Cooley said Wednesday that new strategies were being put into place that searchers hope will better pinpoint where the plane might have gone down.

On Tuesday, investigators painstakingly plotted the course of the plane by combining eye witness accounts with intermittent radar data. Airplanes on Wednesday will try to recreate the route while the eye witnesses stand on the ground verifying that the path is correct, Cooley said.

A boat equipped with advanced sonar was to comb a five-mile stretch of the Flathead River west the bison range that authorities have zeroed in as the most likely area to find the plane. At the same time, searchers have not ruled out a larger area and were continuing a broader airplane search.

Cooley said the multi-agency effort, which includes several area counties along with state and federal authorities, will continue.

"All the players are in place still," she said.

Federal Aviation Administration radar data put the plane's altitude at 300 feet before it disappeared. Witnesses who saw the blue-and-white plane told searchers they believe it was flying even lower, Cooley said.

The FAA's minimum allowable altitude is 500 feet.

Kless' mother, Janelle Gentry of Kalispell, said her son obtained his pilot's license about a year ago and that he has flown the Glacier National Park-Flathead Lake-Flathead River loop several times.

Thirty of Kless' 100 hours of total flight time was in that Piper Arrow, said Joel Woodruff, general manager of Northstar Jet Inc. in Missoula and owner of the plane.

Weaver, 23, is from Billings, and Hoefer, 27, is from Beloit, Wis. Both began work at the end of last year.

Kless, 25, is a recent graduate from the University of Montana with a degree in environmental studies and communications. Williams attends law school at the University of Montana.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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