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How NASA-Nominee James Morhard Survived the Plane Crash that Killed Senator Ted Stevens

July 16, 2018

The following story was published in the Spring 2013 issue of Saint Francis University magazine. Here, James Morhard recalls the harrowing tale of his survival of the 2010 Alaskan plane crash that killed U.S. Senator Ted Stevens.

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By Joann (Bugrin) Cantrell '81

Wreckage from the plane crash near Dillingham, Alaska, that killed former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and four others. Accounting alumnus James Morhard ’78 was among four who survived the crash and a harrowing 18-hour rescue in the remote wilderness.

By the time a rescue team finally reached the mangled wreckage from a plane crash on a desolate mountain-side near Dillingham, Alaska, spotty information was just reaching the East Coast. 

James MorhardAs early news reports started to break on the morning of Tuesday, August 10, 2010, all that was confirmed was that former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican United States Senator in history, was killed in the accident and that Saint Francis alumnus James Morhard Esq. ’78,  Saint Francis University Board of Trustee member, was a passenger on that flight. 

Morhard’s close friends were all too familiar with his intense travel schedule and the high profiles he was associated with, yet a sick feeling hit John Libonati when he looked up to see a muted CNN report breaking the news from his Washington, D.C. office. He and Morhard were longtime friends, working together on Capitol Hill where Morhard had established 26 years of impressive congressional credentials and served as Chief of Staff of the  Senate Appropriations Committee prior to forming his own law firm and becoming an Adjunct Professor at the  Naval Postgraduate School.

While managing a staff of 75, Morhard worked closely with House and Senate leadership and had become well-connected through the years to Ted Stevens, the President pro tempore, the former Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the Senate’s most powerful members.

“I just knew,” said Libonati, a 23-year veteran of the Secret Service assigned to the Presidential Protective Detail for Ronald Reagan. “I knew right away without being told that James was on that plane – there was a pit in my stomach.” 

Without hesitation, Libonati stopped at home to pack a light bag before driving to Arlington to be with James’s family. “Sketchy reports claimed that there were four alive and we realized there was a chance. For anyone who knew James, we had to believe in that chance.”

Tragedy strikes

A day earlier, on Monday, August 9, shortly after 3:00 p.m., Morhard and a group of close friends and colleagues boarded a 1957 DeHavilland DHC-3T propeller float plane and headed from a corporate lodge to a popular fishing camp on the Nushagak River, 52 miles away, in southwest Alaska. With high hopes of earning bragging rights for catching some arm-long silver salmon, each individual passenger was unaware that their random seat selection would seal their fate. 

Unequipped with a radar system, 62-year-old veteran pilot Terry Smith waited for a break in the weather and flew the party of eight through the rain and wind, struggling as he guessed his way through the unstable air – far from ideal conditions, yet not uncommon to the region.

Without warning, minutes into the flight, in an untouched, desolate spot of the state, the single-engine plane plunged with such enormous impact into a rugged mountainside that it created a deep gash on the slope and hurled nine bodies and all contents of the aircraft forward. It was reported later that the passenger seats had been rated for 20 gs and all but one were completely sheared off.

The deafening silence that followed resonated in Morhard’s own words as he described what he recollected: “One minute we were flying, and the next, we weren’t.” 

In the minutes after the plane crash, Morhard’s first moments of consciousness revealed his body on top Sean O’Keefe, now Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of EADS North America and former NASA Director. O’Keefe was still strapped in his seat, though uprooted in a forward and downward position and pinned in by miscellaneous bags, fishing equipment and mangled wreckage. The plane was stuck in an upward 30-degree angle. With all the strength he could muster, Morhard moved off of O’Keefe. His first thoughts were of Bill Phillips, his close friend and law partner, who lay dead next to him. 

As Morhard was trapped with death around him, the words, “God is with me,” came to him, almost as if he expected to see Him. Morhard recalled an incident years earlier when he was driving from the Capitol early in the morning on Interstate 95. He witnessed the car in front of him drift off of the highway and flip in mid-air, landing at the bottom of an embankment. When Morhard stopped and ran to the overturned car, the driver got out from under the car and said, “God is with me, right here – right now.” Now Morhard had another opportunity to witness God’s plan in action, but this time it was his turn to feel the impact.

Knowing that Sean O’Keefe had very little room, Morhard grabbed his jacket, climbed over him and started to slide head first to the back of the plane where he would remain for the 17 ½ hours that followed.

James Morhard and Senator Ted StevensAlmost simultaneously, it became apparent through observation that the cockpit had been blown apart and the bodies of five passengers who had been catapulted from their origin had perished. Morhard knew that Bill Phillips died on impact, along with his other law partner and mentor, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens; pilot Terry Smith; executive Dana Tindall and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey.

A roll call confirmed O’Keefe and his 19-year-old son, Kevin, and 13-year-old, Willy Phillips, as the only others to survive, all with a multitude of broken bones and the inability to move. Despite a shattered ankle, the youngest became the only one able to crawl through the wreckage in search of a radio, phone or medical kit, to no avail. 

As if the dire situation could get no worse, the cold fact was that no one else knew at the time that the plane was missing. 

As the reality of Bill Phillips’ death hit his son, Willy, he quietly asked Morhard if his father was really gone. Morhard calmly confirmed the truth and suggested that he and Willy say the Rosary together. Soon after, all four men, who were Roman Catholic, were saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys to the sound of rain echoing through the fuselage. At the same time, Morhard was searching in his mind for the next Mystery so that there would be no pause for Willy.

Four hours passed before the operators at the lodge where the group had flown from called the fish camp to inquire when the party would be returning for dinner. The men at the fishing camp had assumed that the bad weather had turned the plane around and only now, at 6:00 p.m., was it discovered that the group had taken off, but never showed up to fish.

Rescue efforts begin

In large part, credit for the rescue was given to the youngest passenger on the flight, 13- year-old Willy Phillips, who had pushed his hand out of the broken fuselage and waved to a search plane passing overhead. At first glance from the air, rescuers would otherwise have assumed there were no survivors and efforts to reach the wreckage would have been delayed had they not seen his moving hand. 

“We could hear the planes get close and then far away and the expectations and emotions would rise and fall with the noise level of the planes because we knew they were looking for us,” Morhard said.

The 6 hour time difference between Alaskan and Eastern Time zones made for difficult communication for Morhard’s family, friends and colleagues. Initial news reports claimed that along with Senator Stevens, one of his former congressional aides was among the four others killed in the crash. That confirmation meant that it was either Bill Phillips or James Morhard.

Katherine Gronberg, an Associate at the law firm Morhard & Associates, was vacationing in Maine and was 7 ½ months pregnant when she learned about the accident. The firm represented and advised a number of high-profile clients from the defense, aviation and homeland security sectors. Once news reports went public, it didn’t take long until Gronberg was bombarded with inquiries from the media.

“When I became bogged down with phone calls, I went across the street to the home where my parents were also vacationing, and I met my father in the street as he was on his way to see me. He was ghost-white and consumed with grief, assuming that James was dead. My family didn’t know him personally, but in their minds, James was my boss, my mentor, and the one responsible for my professional success. You could not find a better person than James and he is like a member of our family. They have so much respect and admiration for him, that when decisions need to be made, a common phrase has become, ‘What would James do?’ I can hardly remember that difficult day because it was so emotionally draining that I couldn’t come to terms with thoughts of his death.”

Back in Alaska, by the time first responders landed by helicopter nearly 1,000 feet above the crash site, six hours had passed since the plane crashed and nightfall was quickly approaching. In grave danger themselves, responders had to make their way through the rain-soaked thick woods, over giant boulders and through dense undergrowth while conditions continued to deteriorate. Worse, bears – some weighing nearly 1,500 pounds and standing over 10 feet tall – lived in the wilderness surrounding the crash site. To navigate through the rough terrain without being able to see the plane or know the exact location from the ground was a next to impossible task for even the most skilled rescue team. 

And reaching the four survivors was only half of the battle. Getting them out alive would take nothing short of a miracle.

The scene was a living hell accompanied by the worst imaginable emotions for the four survivors while in their midst, their five companions lay dead in the mangled fuselage of the small plane. One of the first responders described the horror of seeing passengers still strapped in their seats covered in blood amidst the mangled debris of the wreckage. The nose of the plane disintegrated and the front of the aircraft was gone. The few ill-equipped responders spent the miserable night tending to survivors’ broken bones and injuries without the assistance of drugs, all the while amid a huge slick of fuel that coated a muddy mountainside.

“I could hear the rain. I could smell the jet fuel and the blood,” Morhard recalls, “And as the morning wore on, the smell of death engulfed the wreckage.” Thoughts of his own imminent death were prevalent during the long night. He remembers thinking, “I am either paralyzed or I am dying.”

The constant fight to remain conscious was combined with the more pressing battle to stay alive.

Aircrafts flying in the area of Dillingham, Alaska are in danger through the mountainous area even in good weather, but that fateful night in August was exceptionally rainy and cold with gusty winds. It was believed that the passengers’ hip-waders for fishing acted as an insulator, keeping body heat in and protected them when they went into shock as temperatures dropped into the 40s overnight.

Stuck in the rear cargo area with his head pointing downward since the impact, Morhard floated in and out of consciousness. Later, it was found that Morhard broke his neck, heel, 16 ribs, breast plate, and left arm. His left wrist was shattered into 20 to 30 pieces. He had multiple puncture wounds from flying metal. His right lung was collapsed and his left lung half full of blood. Breathing had become his greatest challenge. By midnight, nearly 9 hours after the crash, a disheartening verdict came in that it would be impossible for a fully equipped team of rescue workers to reach the scene until the next morning. 

Dr. Dani Bowman was one of the heroic first responders. She spent the night tending to the living. Later, Dani would tell Morhard that her real concern had been his breathing and that she had considered using the knife in her pocket to bleed out his lungs. When the Air National Guard paramedics finally roped down from a hovering chopper at daybreak with the desperately needed supplies and equipment to airlift the injured, the survivors had been stranded for 18 hours.

A full day after the collision on the mountain, Morhard and the other survivors were flown first to a hospital in Dillingham, and then nearly 400 miles to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. Morhard’s long journey back to life was only just beginning.

The road to recovery

When John Libonati arrived in Alaska with Morhard’s family, the dark and dismal backdrop immediately set the tone of the critical circumstance. “We were greeted by a hospital administrator and given a briefing about James’s injuries and it was absolutely amazing that when we saw him, he was conscious,” Libonati said.

"James was able to make eye contact and talk. I found it incredible that from those first moments, he was the one comforting everyone else. That is the remarkable man that James is! With all he had been through, he still had the ability to offer comfort with smile. You simply cannot meet a more unselfish human being.”

Libonati continued to say, “Clearly, there’s no doubt that his faith got him through this. He refused to be a victim, putting himself in God’s hands and repeatedly saying that he knew God had a plan.” 

Morhard later discussed the foundation of his faith. “There is no question that much of my faith was quietly instilled in me at Saint Francis by the T.O.R.'s such as Father Richard Davis and Father Joseph Yelenc,” he said. “It gave me such a resolve in that plane, while death was so very near. I peacefully knew I would be alright either way – live or die. They say where there is faith, there is no room for fear, and for whatever reasons I was not afraid to die.”

“Thirty years before, those two priests especially lead by example and we, as young men, followed. I remember Fr. Joe was our Resident Director at Giles Hall. He welcomed everyone to visit him after we were done studying. Before long he had us going to the noon Mass at the Chapel,” Morhard reflects.

“For some it may have been to get him to laugh while giving his homily – but one way or the other we were there looking forward to Mass and benefitting spiritually. Fr. Richard was the same, as he slowly infiltrated his way and God’s Word into the TKE house – which at the time needed both. There is no question that the influence of these men at Saint Francis prepared me for the event of the crash.”

In the immediate days that followed in the Anchorage hospital, thoughts of the close friends he lost and their grieving families weighed heavy on Morhard’s mind. The plane crash became a very charged and public story.

Regardless of his critical injuries, Morhard was insistent on attending the funerals in Anchorage including Senator Stevens’. The former Senator was like a father-figure to James who persisted on being there to comfort others. When asked once about their relationship, Stevens described Morhard as “One of the truest great gentleman I have worked with all my life. He is absolutely loyal to the Senate and its processes.”

For many of Morhard’s friends from Saint Francis, the televised funeral became an emotional thanksgiving at the sight of a dear friend feared to have been lost. It was apparent how much Morhard meant to the Saint Francis community as many joined together in spirit and prayer, remembering the bonds that were formed as students. 

“The funeral was the first glimpse of the magnitude of James’s injuries as he was shown in the front row, in his wheelchair. He was banged up and bandaged almost beyond recognition and you could feel his pain both physically and spiritually through the television screen,” said alumni and friend Tinsy Labrie Lipchak ’80.

Almost a footnote to the many news stories, slight mention of Morhard included various depictions: a fisherman, an outdoorsman, a Washington lawyer, a former Appropriations Chief of Staff and an appropriator. And while Morhard fit all of those descriptions, the essence of his character was missing. The depictions did not capture the larger-than-life personality of a lifelong, loyal friend. 

A TKE brother remembers

Art Cantrell ’79 has known James for more than 35 years and remembers his leadership and strong character with fond memories.

“When I learned that James was in the plane crash, my heart literally sunk. I met James as I walked into my dorm in Giles Hall, on my first day of my freshman year, in September of 1975. My very first impression was that he was a leader – more mature and centered than most of us at that young age. Very friendly and outgoing, James had an irrepressible energy about him,” Cantrell said. “We were brothers in the TKE fraternity, where James served as president and he became someone looked up to by everyone. Our bond of friendship grew even stronger, beginning with our first jobs out of college when James worked at the Pentagon and I was an officer in the USAF. James’s passion for politics and interest in serving our country was present early on and continues today with his intuitive expertise and insightful knowledge on national Security. James is, no doubt, one of the most interesting and fascinating people I’ve ever met. If a trial like the horrific accident is a true testament to character, I can say without reservation that even when James was suffering badly, he was always thinking of others. ” 

James Morhard and SFU Alumni

“The day I learned of the plane crash was truly the longest day of my life,” Maiola said. Distraught and tormented by waiting for news, Maiola contemplated all of the possible scenarios that could play out and poured his heart out by writing a premature eulogy for his best friend.

Another lifelong friend and fraternity brother, Mike Corless ’78 fondly remembers spending time with Morhard at Saint Francis. 

“So many people have been made richer by knowing James Morhard,” Corless said. “I initially pledged TKE simply for the food and our pledge class was a conglomerate of many different types – jocks, intellectuals, introverts and extroverts. Some were locals and others were from D.C. or Philly, so I never imagined we would become very close during our college years and certainly not after graduation. However, James became TKE president and was the keystone in making sure that all those different personalities meshed together. I would say that because of James, our class has remained to be close friends for more than three decades. When we learned of his accident, a chain of emails, phone calls and a Caring Bridge Web site that was set up continually kept us all informed and you could feel the bond of our friendship with him. I knew that if anyone could be a survivor, it would be James.”

Throughout his own physical sufferings, what was amazing to Morhard’s family and friends was his unmatched resolve to be a source of strength and support to others and it was clear from the beginning that he was focused on mustering all of his energy for recovery. On August 21, less than two weeks after the accident, arrangements were made for Morhard to move from Anchorage to the national Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C., one of the top facilities for physical rehabilitation in the country.

Morhard’s arrival, Joel Maiola planned his homecoming which could hardly take place inconspicuously. The two met when Maiola was the Chief of Staff for former U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, and through the years of working together, he had become perhaps Morhard’s closest confidant.

James Morhard’s miraculous survival became a major press story. It became a media circus with Morhard’s family being hounded by the networks, staff from the Oprah Winfrey Show, and journalists wanting to interview him as a survivor. When it came time for Morhard’s return, Maiola flew to Washington to prepare for his arrival.

“There were 60 to 80 people who had come by to welcome him, not only his friends, but people all the way back through James’s life who had been on the edge of their seats and just wanted to see him,” Maiola recalled. “The medical professionals who were transporting him advised against it, but James was insistent on greeting everyone. Here is a guy who crashes in a plane and breaks just about every bone in his body and he’s taking the time to make sure he reaches out to everyone who supported him. The trauma that James endured was extraordinary and yet, those who are closest to him say that the event galvanized his spirit.”

What few people knew was that Morhard had gone into atrial fibrillation on the plane somewhere over the Dakotas and the last thing he should do was to greet his friends. In Morhard’s mind, passing up the opportunity to see his dear friends was not an option.

“He was a rock,” Maiola continued. Therapy and rehab became almost a competition for James to get better. He had great therapists and an aggressive schedule, yet he was pushing himself on his own. The staff was amazed at how much he progressed in only a few days. James was treating this as if it was the Olympics and he was going to win!” 

A transformational experience

The tragedy of the plane crash in Alaska has changed the rest of James Morhard’s life. His friends have witnessed first-hand how he has found ways to turn the event into a life lesson, keeping a clear perspective by remaining positive. He is not one to dwell on the magnitude of his challenges.

Long before the accident, Morhard was known as a warm and sincere friend, speaking to everyone and listening about their life as if they were the most important person to him. Putting others first has become almost a vocation for James as reaching out and helping others has innately been part of his make up since his days as a young collegiate. Those familiar with Morhard from his years at Saint Francis know that he carries a special place in his heart for his alma mater and the bonds of friendship made there.

“He shares stories of his friends and the time spent at Saint Francis with everyone he meets, always speaking so highly of the school and the people he met there,” Maiola said. “It is evident in his conversations that the University has obviously meant a lot to James and he holds a special spot in his heart for Saint Francis as it has played a major part of his shaping.” 

In his own quiet way, Morhard has always brought people together and connected individuals for good cause. After the accident, he contacted some of his fraternity brothers and close friends living in Pittsburgh to reunite. Over dinner, the friends learned the harrowing details of the accident and were inspired by his fortitude. It was evident that only a man of faith and conviction could have braved such trauma. 

“James told us his story of that trip to Alaska, a story he had told, and will tell, many times. It was bone chilling,” said Tinsy Lipchak. “But the way he told it and the incredible, intimate details of what he experienced and saw that night will stay with him and everyone that sat riveted around the table. He was open, honest and his faith was palpable.”

Morhard summarized his experience with the strong belief, “I am damaged, but not broken.”

Morhard has transformed the events of the plane crash in Alaska into a way to help others in an open and honest way. One could say that he has become a motivational figure, yet everyone who has had the privilege of knowing James has always seen him that way. In his professional career, he’s developed solid relationships and close friendships, never differentiating between one’s political party affiliation. He is someone who could give strong advice and counsel and where ever he goes, people are inspired by him. His positive outlook and message of hope resonates with everyone.

Perseverance and faith

James Morhard has been described as “a man for others” who has lived a life of public service. His unbelievable and miraculous story is a remarkable tale of perseverance and faith that exemplifies the Franciscan values that had roots with the education received in Loretto more than three decades ago. One of the real miracles is that he is back to living a normal life – even a more accelerated life than most.

“James has an inner drive to do what is right and to serve,” said Katherine Gronberg. “I don’t know anyone who can match James in character. He’s young and healthy, and has much more guidance and service to offer. James is one of the greatest patriots that I’ve ever met and he has great potential as a leader.”

It may be ironic to learn that over a century ago, the founders of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) developed the fraternity on the concept of acceptance. The spirit of inclusiveness and belief in the duty to assist others in reaching their highest potential was taken to heart by Morhard when he served as president of the Saint Francis chapter 35 years ago. It is only fitting that he continues to use the fraternity signature “yours in the bond,” when corresponding with classmates. 

James Morhard’s unrivaled public service and stalwart desire to give back has not diminished and he has not allowed the pain or struggles from the plane crash in Alaska to dampen his enthusiasm for life. He is a grateful man who has overcome his trials by the sheer force of his personality, leaning on the support of others who have come to know and love him. How fortunate for all that he continues to seize life, agreeing with the words of author Hunter S. Thompson: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a ride!”

Watch James tell his incredible story: