Search and rescue teams hiked through dense brush and timber Thursday to recover the bodies of two Missoula men and two Kalispell newspaper reporters killed in a weekend plane crash.
Teams made it into the crash site at approximately 6 p.m. and called in a helicopter from Minuteman Aviation in Missoula.
Ground crews were able to clear enough foliage to lower nets to retreive the bodies and then transported them to the state crime lab in Missoula. All four were carried out by 8 p.m. Crews were still headed back to the base camp at 10 p.m.
"I think everyone is glad this is pretty much over and that the families can have closure," said Carey Cooley, a spokeswoman for the Lake County Sheriff's Office. "The search and rescue folks had an extremely hard day and they need to be commended."
A federal investigator, meanwhile, was scheduled to arrive at the scene at midnight to begin an official probe of the crash.
Van McKenny, an aerospace engineer from the National Transportation Safety Board's western Pacific regional office in Los Angeles, has been designated the crash's lead investigator. He'll piece together what happened and determine a probable cause.
A multi-agency ensemble of about 45 people joined the recovery effort Thursday, with two teams converging on separate points above and below the crash site. They included a saw team from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a mountain rescue team from Flathead County, and search and rescue crews from Lake and Sanders counties. A team of 20 horses also was on hand, but the rugged terrain made passage extremely difficult, said Cooley.
The site of the crash lies just inside the Sanders County line, in a steep and heavily timbered area near Revais Creek, south of the Flathead River and southwest of the National Bison Range in Moiese.
Killed in the crash were Sonny Kless, 25, and Brian Williams, 28, both of Missoula, as well as Erika Hoefer, 27, and Melissa Weaver, 23, both of Kalispell. Hoefer and Weaver worked as newspaper reporters at the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, while Kless had recently graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in environmental studies. Williams also received his undergraduate degree from UM, and had just completed his first year of law school.
Wreckage of the 1968 Piper fixed wing single-engine plane was found near where the plane last had GPS and radar contact with the Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday afternoon, when Kless piloted his three passengers on a sightseeing flight from Glacier National Park to the Bison Range and along the Flathead River.
Search and rescue crews combed the area for three days before finding the wreckage late on Wednesday afternoon.
A Homeland Security helicopter first spotted the plane, but could not land in the rugged terrain. A larger helicopter, one from Malmstrom, then ferried Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman to the crash site. He was lowered down to the aircraft and confirmed there were no survivors.
The recovery crews were staged on roads near the crash site on Wednesday night, Cooley said, and began hiking Thursday morning, with the sawyer team slashing through brush and downed timber. Crews made slow progress as the Mountain Rescue Team hiked in from about a mile above the crash site, while the search and rescue crews hiked in from about two miles below the wreckage. A helicopter from Red Eagle Aviation in Kalispell helped direct the crews from the air.
McKenny, the NTSB investigator, traveled to western Montana on Thursday and was to arrive at Moiese at midnight to begin efforts to get an NTSB team on the crash site.
McKenny has investigated numerous small plane crashes in recent years, working in a 10-state western region, said Debra Eckrote, deputy regional chief of NTSB. He is in charge of gathering facts, circumstances and conditions related to the accident. Once that information is assembled, McKenny will prepare a report identifying issues pertinent to the accident, and based on those facts an NTSB board will determine the probable cause.
In addition to inspecting the plane's physical parts, McKenny, who has been with the safety board for several years as a journeyman investigator, will also make plans to recover the wreckage.
"The cause of the crash could be any variety of things, depending on what the investigation finds," Eckrote said.
McKenny was not available for comment on Thursday.