Tom Wallace was flying in a plane over Alaska last summer when it crashed into a mountain, without any warning. “The first thing I remember thinking was, ‘What happened?’” said Wallace, who was one of 10 passengers flying in a small float plane, on their way home from an Alaskan fishing trip on the morning of July 10, 2018.
“People didn’t know exactly what happened at first,” said Wallace, 76, also president of Legatus’ Ventura/North Los Angeles Chapter.
A routine flight became a harrowing experience for Wallace, his 42-year-old son Michael, and all the other passengers who huddled under the small plane’s wings in the cold and rain for nearly three hours until the Coast Guard discovered them.
“I have the utmost respect for the Coast Guard and their rescue capabilities,” said Wallace, a former Army helicopter pilot who flew combat missions in Vietnam and was shot down several times.
A former Navy Seal rappelled from the helicopter and helped all 11 survivors, including the pilot, get lifted up into the chopper, which was hovering about 100 feet overhead. The rescuer later told Wallace that his crew usually doesn’t find people alive after the kind of crash they survived.
“He called it ‘the miracle on the mountain,’” Wallace said.
Just an ordinary trip, until…
As they have done for 10 years, Wallace and his son, both of whom live in California, went on a fishing trip to Alaska.
Last July, they spent three days fishing at a small resort on Noyes Island, located in Alaska’s inland waterways. They enjoyed three days fishing with several other people, and had breakfast and dinner together.
The weather had been good during those three days. But on the morning of July 10, they were scheduled to leave the resort by taking a float plane to Ketchikan, where they would then catch a commercial flight home.
That morning, a heavy rainstorm came in that delayed their plane. Still, three other float planes picked up passengers from the fishing resort without any problems. Wallace, his son, five other men and three women boarded their plane when it arrived.
The pilot took the normal route to Ketchikan, but ran into bad weather that dropped visibility from several miles to virtually nothing. The pilot turned around to find another way around the problem area, but ran into more bad weather.
A report from the National Transportation Safety Board later said that the bad weather and poor visibility caused the pilot to become disoriented.
“In the back of my mind, I figured, ‘Well, it’s pretty safe being on a float plane. If something goes wrong, you just land on the water, and there’s plenty of water around,” said Michael Wallace, who works in the development office at Santa Clara University.
Michael, who was sitting a few rows ahead of his father, did not notice that anything was wrong at first when the pilot began an emergency climb. The pilot took a hard right turn, almost stalling the plane and losing momentum just before it collided into the mountainside.
… the mountain meeting
“It was like a rock falling from a high building. It was a solid impact,” said Tom Wallace, who suddenly found himself on top of the passenger across the aisle.
“There was really no warning that we were going to crash,” he said. “The pilot didn’t say, ‘Brace yourselves, we’re in a bad situation.’ The first thing you knew was the crash.”
Moments after, disoriented passengers found themselves on top of each other.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’ Michael said. “And then there was the realization that, ‘We just crashed.’”
“Then you kind of scan your body. You say, ‘All right, my head’s okay, my shoulders, my arms, my legs,’” Michael said. “I look down on my feet, and my right foot, my shoe was sliced off. My right foot had a fair amount of blood on it. It looked pretty gnarly when I looked at it.”
With the endorphins likely kicking into emergency mode, Michael said he did not immediately feel any pain. He found his right shoe, slid his bloody foot into it and made his way out of the plane through the co-pilot’s door.
Meanwhile, Tom Wallace noticed a toxic odor of gasoline making its way through the plane’s cabin. The crash had pushed the plane’s pontoons up to the cabin, blocking the rear doors. The passengers had to leave through the pilots’ doors at the front.
It took about 30 minutes to get everyone out. Tom Wallace was the last passenger off the plane.
Huddling in cold rain
Outside, the passengers huddled under the wings as the pilot used a rope to secure the plane from sliding off the mountain. The survivors used the plane’s emergency supply of thermal blankets to keep themselves warm in the cold and rain.
“I didn’t want the wedding to be turned into a funeral,” he said.
Some of the passengers, some of whom were already showing signs of hypothermia, were concerned about how long they would be exposed to the elements. Some of them prayed to be rescued.
Fog blinded rescuers
Almost three hours after they crashed, the first rescue helicopters flew over the site, but the heavy fog and clouds made visibility virtually zero. Even though the passengers on the ground could hear the helicopter overhead, they never saw it.
“We could hear it come in and we could hear it leave,” Michael said. “That was heartbreaking.”
A short time later, the silhouette of a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter slowly emerged through the clouds. The crew lowered a large basket to lift each survivor into the helicopter, which was quickly packed to capacity, so much so that the former Navy Seal strapped the last survivor — the pilot — to himself and left the basket behind.
“We were basically sitting on top of each other,” said Michael, who suffered broken bones in both feet. He was in a wheelchair and crutches for ten weeks. He is walking, regaining his strength, and hopes to get back to competitive running by mid-January.
“It’s hard to even fathom that I’ve gone through that experience,” said Michael, who is married and is a father to two young boys.
Several other passengers were treated for back injuries. Tom Wallace had bruising on his chest, a strained neck, and five small fractures in his left knee. Still, it could have been much worse. Given that there were no fatalities, he said the group’s guardian angels “were surrounding us.”
“We were all truly blessed that we were able to get off that mountain,” Tom Wallace said. “It gives you a much greater feeling of purpose when you survive something like that. It means the Lord was not ready to take us.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.