MOIESE - The bodies of four young western Montanans were found late Wednesday afternoon in the wreckage of a small plane that crashed during a weekend sightseeing flight.
Although friends and family members remained hopeful throughout the day, and even formed their own search parties, officials confirmed the fatalities shortly before 5 p.m. Dead are Sonny Kless and Brian Williams of Missoula, and Erika Hoefer and Melissa Weaver of Kalispell.
A Homeland Security helicopter spotted the plane in the Revais Creek area at 2 p.m., but could not land because the terrain is extremely rugged, very steep and heavily timbered.
The crash site is just inside the Sanders County line, and is very near the last GPS and radar contact the Federal Aviation Administration had with the aircraft 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.
A helicopter from Malmstrom Air Force Base ferried Sanders County Undersheriff Rube Wrightsman to the crash site, where he rappelled down to the aircraft and confirmed that there were no survivors.
Families of the victims were at the command center at the National Bison Range, and received word of their loved ones' fate inside the visitor center.
The crash site was about a 10-minute flight from Moiese, and family members waited anxiously as the Malmstrom helicopter arrived first with news of a sighting, and then again after confirming the deaths. The dozens of family members grieved deeply as they left, and did not speak to reporters.
The plane was found on level terrain, Wrightsman said, but the area around it was steep and rugged. It appeared the aircraft was flying too low and could not make it over the higher terrain, although officials were not speculating on the cause of the crash.
The site was south of the Flathead River and southwest of the Bison Range.
Now begins work to bring the bodies out of the remote area. Officials said there is no way to land a helicopter at the scene.
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board also will begin their work to determine a cause of the crash.
Earlier in the day, more than a dozen friends and family members of the four young people struck out on foot and by vehicle to try and locate the plane. They wore emergency whistles on lanyards around their necks, and pored over maps at the Bison Range visitor center before beginning their search under the hot morning sun. Others joined them throughout the day, including friends, classmates and acquaintances.
"We can't just wait and do nothing, so we're going to go do some search work by foot and find them. Today," said Donna Williams, the mother of 28-year-old Brian Williams, who was a law student at the University of Montana. "We are just praying."
Donna was joined by her husband, Gary, and Brian's chocolate lab Charlie, as well as two other friends.
Meanwhile, Wendy Martin, girlfriend of the airplane's pilot, Sonny Kless, set out with family members who based their search on radio-tower pings and the plane's last communications with Glacier International Airport, as well as on the eyewitness reports.
Kless, 25, was a recent graduate of UM's environmental studies program. A Federal Aviation Administration database shows he received a private pilot's license in basic general aviation on June 26, 2009. He was flying a 1968 Piper fixed wing single-engine plane, which the FAA site lists as airworthy. The plane is registered to a Joel Woodruff in Stevensville.
Hoefer, 27, and Weaver, 23, were newspaper reporters for the Daily Interlake in Kalispell. The sightseeing trip was not a work assignment, but rather a pleasure outing on their day off.
The four were on an excursion authorities initially believed was going to be limited to Glacier National Park. FAA radar data, however, showed the plane flew from Kalispell north along the Whitefish Range, entered Glacier Park airspace, then headed south along the Swan Mountain Range, crossed Flathead Lake and moved south to the National Bison Range in Moiese.
Along the way, Kless extended his four-hour rental of the plane, which was originally due back in Missoula by 4 p.m., to 5:30 p.m. The four took off from Kalispell at approximately 1:30 p.m.
At 1:40 p.m., Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said, Hoefer updated her Facebook page, writing, "We're flying to the park, and we're later going to a barbecue."
A friend reported them missing when they failed to arrive at the barbecue.
Kless last made contact with Glacier International Airport at 2:11 p.m. About an hour later, a text message was exchanged between Hoefer and Weaver's cell phones that "pinged" off a tower in the Ronan area. FAA radar data last showed the plane about 300 feet off the ground and west of the Bison Range. It disappeared from the screen at 4:02 p.m.
Search and rescue crews worked with three eyewitnesses who saw the plane Sunday afternoon in an effort to re-create the flight path, said Carey Cooley, a spokeswoman for the Lake County Sheriff's Office.
Cooley said 10 aircraft and a boat equipped with sideways-searching sonar scanned the area where the plane was last sighted. Eventually, it was located in the area where they believed it would be.
Cooley said the small blue-and-white plane was last seen flying extremely low over the Flathead River, just 20 to 30 feet above the river and nearby treetops.
From Perma to Dixon, numerous Sanders County residents said they heard a loud noise or a low-flying plane on Sunday afternoon around the time the plane is believed to have crashed.
Marjorie Gould, of Dixon, said she heard "a big bang" on Sunday, but couldn't be certain of the exact time.
"It just sounded like when boxcars disconnect and collide," Gould said. "I didn't think anything of it."
Mariss McTucker was on the Flathead River near Perma when she heard a similar noise, and reported it to police with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Heather Saint, who works at the Dixon Post Office, said she also heard a low-flying plane, which she believed was making a routine pipeline inspection. She then saw a plume of smoke coming from the mountains.
"It was just like a bonfire," Saint said. "It didn't have the thick petroleum smoke to it like a plane crash might."
Lake County Sheriff Lucky Larson and Sanders County Undersheriff Wrightsman said their agencies followed every lead during the three-day search, but focused their search efforts on the area described by the eyewitnesses. Those reports corroborated closely with one another, as well as with the FAA radar data.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.