Park ranger describes brief time at crash site, as weather conditions prevent recovery of victims

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TALKEETNA, Alaska (KTUU) - The National Park Service has halted recovery efforts of the victims of a flightseeing plane crash in Denali National Park due to weather conditions in the Alaska Range, and it’s unclear when the weather will allow a recovery. A park ranger described the conditions at the crash site after his brief time assessing the scene.

This photo from the National Park Service shows the site of a plane crash into the side of a mountain near the top of Thunder Mountain in the Alaska Range, near Denali.

[RELATED: 4 dead, 1 missing, presumed dead, in Denali plane crash]

Monday morning's short-haul flight -- in which mountaineering ranger Chris Erickson dangled from a helicopter, was to make a determination on whether the crash was still a rescue or a recovery. That operation was planned during a short break in the weather at about 7 a.m.

[RELATED: Plane equipped with survival gear as rescuers try to reach crash site]

Erickson found that snow had drifted into the plane, near the summit of Thunder Mountain, at about 10,920 feet. He dug through the snow and found four bodies. Erickson could not locate the fifth person but did not find any evidence that that person had been able to get out of the plane, and they are presumed dead.

Erickson was at the crash scene for less than five minutes, and never disconnected from the short haul. He said snow had drifted into the plane, and that it was highly unlikely people were able to move around.

The crash is not stable as it’s situated in a crevasse on the mountain. It’s steep and either overhanging or vertical in places. Climbing to the site this time of year was not a rescue option, Erickson said.

Park officials did not release which of the five occupants, a pilot and four Polish tourists, were found. At a press conference Monday afternoon, Erickson wouldn’t discuss the condition of the plane or the bodies. He said it was likely that flight-seers wouldn’t be dressed for winter conditions in their seats.

A Polish tour company planned the trip, National Park Service spokesperson Katherine Belcher said. It is unknown if the four were traveling together outside of the flight-seeing trip.

The last contact with the pilot, who Belcher confirmed to be Craig Layson of Saline, Mich., was on Saturday evening by satellite phone. Belcher said it is not yet known whether Layson or the other people on board were able to get to the emergency supplies in the plane. Ericson said he did not see any survival equipment during his limited time at the crash.

[RELATED: Michigan Paper: Local man piloted crashed flightseeing tour in Denali]

Winds at the mountain were steady at 25-35 knots, and gusted up to 60 knots on Sunday.

There could be another break in the weather Wednesday to facilitate recovery, Belcher said. There is a temporary flight restriction in the area for the foreseeable future.

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