I shouldn’t be alive: Alaskan plane crash
By Kirk Noonan
Flanked by rugged mountains and jagged icebergs, the single-engine Cessna buzzed low over the tundra valley floor. From inside the plane’s cabin the passengers spotted soaring eagles, crystal blue lakes and vast herds of wild game.
The 45-minute flight offered a visual banquet of Alaska’s wilderness. Onboard were Tom Witt, then the senior pastor at First Assembly of God in Los Gatos, Calif.; Thomas Paterson, a Sunday School teacher at the church; his friend Joseph Schultz, a Bay Area periodontist; Sig Alsworth, a fishing guide; and David Denney, the pilot.
The plan was to land on Hudson Lake then float downstream in an inflatable raft to Lake Iliamna, one of Alaska’s largest and most picturesque lakes. There, the pilot would pick them up in the afternoon. What the men didn’t know that morning was that nothing would go as they planned.
Under normal weather conditions the plane could move like a water bug across a lake after landing. On September 17, 1982, 60-mile-an-hour winds had turned the lake into a choppy mess of whitecaps. Taxiing directly to the dock was impossible, so the pilot maneuvered the plane by repeatedly taxiing into the wind then letting it push the plane back toward the dock. He also canceled his original flight plan, but promised to establish a new one once he was airborne again.
When the plane finally reached the dock, Alsworth had everyone unload their gear and put on their waders. Like school-aged boys on the verge of a great adventure, the men did as they were told.
Minutes before setting out, another guide approached the group and told them the bad weather had spoiled his group’s fishing and would make for a miserable day.
“Why don’t we fly to the lodge and fish there,” suggested Denney, 27.
Witt, Paterson and Schultz surveyed the ominous clouds overhead.
“We’re game,” Witt told Denny. “We just want to fish ... doesn’t matter where.”
After reloading the plane, the men, now wearing waders, settled into their seats. Denney revved the plane’s engine and accelerated across the lake. Sensing his friends’ disappointment, Schultz, who was sitting in the front-right seat, looked back at his fishing buddies.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” he said optimistically. “Whatever happens today is His will for us.”
The plane bounced across the water like an engine-powered skipping stone. When it reached take-off speed it lifted off momentarily when a gust of wind forced it to bank hard left. Witt looked out the window and saw the left wing dip into the water.
“I thought Denney would hit the gas and pull us up,” says Witt. “But in a millisecond the plane cartwheeled.”
When the plane slammed into the lake the tail section snapped in half. Frigid water gushed into the cabin, turning it into a death chamber.
“Whatever air you had in your lungs,” says Witt, “was all you had.”
Time was of the essence. Though the wings kept the plane afloat, it was quickly losing its buoyancy. Besides their need for air, the men needed to get out of the 38-degree water as quickly as possible to stave off hypothermia.
Before any of them could begin to search for a way out, the cargo doors behind Witt inexplicably popped open. He and Paterson swam out. Paterson reached into the plane and pulled Alsworth out.
“I can’t swim,” Alsworth yelled over the thrashing wind and water as the three of them held onto the wing of the plane.
Paterson and Witt’s waders had filled with water and were weighing them down. Going back into the plane to try and pull Schultz and Denney out was impossible.
“We won’t make it if we don’t get these off,” Witt yelled to Paterson.
A pontoon surfaced. Knowing the plane could sink at any moment they helped Alsworth climb onto the pontoon. Witt then managed to push his chest-waders down to his ankles, but they bunched up so tightly he couldn’t move his legs.
He sank rapidly, but struggled back to the surface and gasped for air. After catching his breath, he inhaled deeply and let himself go under, knowing his only chance of survival depended on getting the waders off.
After almost a minute of struggling with the waders he managed to get his left leg free. It was a small victory, but when he resurfaced and looked around, he saw that the plane, pontoon and Alsworth were gone.
“I wanted to save Sig,” says Witt. “When I saw he was gone it was a very tough moment.”
With no time to grieve, Witt and Paterson swam against the wind toward the closest shoreline. Within minutes they realized they weren’t getting anywhere. Witt told Paterson they needed to swim with the wind, which meant swimming at least a mile to the opposite shoreline.
Paterson, 37, married with two children, nodded in agreement. As they swam they called on the Lord to rescue them with each stroke. At one point Paterson yelled, “Lord, save us. We’re sinners saved by Your grace.”
Seconds later, Witt looked back to check on his friend, but Paterson was gone. Fearful that he too would drown, Witt cried out, “Lord, prompt someone to pray for me and send someone to save me.”
Witt, 51 at the time, was in the best shape of his life. For several months before going to Alaska he had spent at least an hour each day in his family’s pool swimming nonstop and doing the breaststroke without the help of his legs.
“God prepared me,” he says. “And even though the water was freezing, I never felt cold in it.”
Nearly an hour after crashing, Witt stumbled out of the lake shaking violently. Patches of snow and ice covered parts of the ground and the temperature had dipped with the storm.
If he could have, Witt would have crumpled to the ground and cried for his friends. But now he had to battle the cold winds.
Ironically, the waders that had almost killed him now helped save him. He pulled them on as a shield from the wind and a covering for his feet.
Before the trip, Witt had surgery on his feet. “The Lord knew I needed the waders to walk,” he says.
Witt also found comfort knowing the low-lying shrubs and trees surrounding the lake made him visible if a search plane flew over. But then he realized Denney had cancelled the flight plan. Most likely, he thought, no one knew they had crashed.
He decided his only option was to find the guide who had told them the fishing was bad. Witt began the long hike back to the dock.
He moved slowly, but when he heard the unmistakable sound of a plane then saw it coming toward the lake, he frantically waved his arms. But the plane flew by.
“God, surely You didn’t bring me through all this not to save me,” he prayed.
Exhausted, Witt fell to the ground and wanted nothing more than to sleep. But his severe shaking wouldn’t allow it. He pulled himself up and continued walking. Unbeknown to him the guide he was searching for had raced to his boat radio and reported the crash.
Twenty minutes later, a helicopter flew over and hovered above the crash site. Again, Witt pulled himself to his feet and flailed his arms, but the pilots did not see him.
“Dear Lord,” Witt cried. “They don’t think there are any survivors. Please help me.”
The chopper then flew to the dock and hovered above it as if searching for survivors. Suddenly, it turned and raced toward Witt and rescued him.
At a lodge, a doctor examined Witt. Though his body temperature was one degree from hypothermia, he had escaped the crash with only a few cuts and bruises.
After returning home he went to the Patersons’ house to console them. While there, he met Paterson’s father who asked Witt to take a walk with him.
“My wife and I don’t want you to feel any guilt about this,” he said, as he put his arm around Witt.
Before they made it across the street, Witt began sobbing. He was no longer able to keep to himself the pain of watching his friends die.
“It all poured out of me,” he says, recalling the moment. “Mr. Paterson’s words broke the artesian well that was within me.”
Witt says God provided for him the day of the crash in several ways, including the cargo doors opening, the waders not coming fully off, the guide calling in the crash, and the helicopter pilots who braved the inclement weather.
When Witt, now 75, thinks of his friends, he finds hope in this truth: “All of them were believers in Jesus Christ,” he says. “Because of that, they were actually the fortunate ones because they were enjoying heaven before I even reached shore.”
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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