A 40-minute connecting flight near Ketchikan, Alaska, one week ago nearly claimed the life of Kankakee-area businessman Jeff Chiero, owner of Court Street Ford in Bourbonnais.
The 65-year-old Limestone man is recovering at home in a body brace which extends from his chin to his hips. The brace is used to stabilize his back, which suffered a cracked No. 1 lumbar vertebrae.
“It was surreal,” Chiero said of the 9 a.m. July 10 accident in which the small plane he and 10 others were traveling in crashed on Mount Jumbo, southwest of Ketchikan.
On a fishing excursion with three longtime friends in remote areas of Alaska, Chiero was making his way back toward home with his group when their flight crashed in dense fog.
“I remember looking up, and I saw the mountain. There was no where to go,” he said.
The first leg of the trip home was to be just a 40-minute flight from Steamboat Bay on Noyes Island to Ketchikan. They were then going to fly to Seattle, Wash., and then home.
However, things went very wrong.
The dense fog caused pilot Mike Hudgins, 72, of Ketchikan, a Taquan Air pilot, to fly low in order to get under the fog.
Because of the dense fog, reportedly not unusual for the area, Hudgins decided to take a different route. However, he told National Transportation Safety Board investigators he then determined he was flying too low.
He attempted an emergency climb, but was unable to outclimb the terrain and struck the side of the mountain.
“When we hit, my upper body hit my lower body. I completely pancaked,” Chiero said as he recalled the incident Monday from his Limestone home. “My brain told me I was going to be hurt. We hit so hard. I’m amazed 11 people were able to walk out of that plane.”
His immediate thought after the plane came to its sudden stop was getting out of it. Passengers were able to crawl through a small opening in the belly of the plane. Once outside, they were greeted by cold, rainy weather.
The downed aircraft sent out an emergency signal which was quickly discovered by aviation authorities. By 1 p.m., a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was hoisting the passengers and pilot from the crash site.
The passengers were airlifted to a hospital, where they were examined.
“They asked what hurt. I told them my back, shoulder, ribs, arm, elbow,” Chiero recalled. He was examined and released. He said the medical staff never scanned his back.
When he returned home on July 11 — with the 34 pounds of king salmon, lake cod, halibut and bass he caught — he wasn’t feeling well. That shouldn’t have been a surprise.
However, he was only getting worse. He went to his doctor and underwent a full body scan.
On his way home from the visit, Chiero received a telephone call from his doctor. He was told he had a damaged vertebrae and he was to go directly to the hospital. He was fitted with a body brace to stabilize that region. He likely will remain in the brace for six weeks.
“Thank goodness I went to see him,” he said. “I was so blessed.”
Chiero could not give enough thanks to the rescue crews of the Coast Guard, the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad and Alaska State Police.
“The professionalism of the Coast Guard was beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life. God saved us that day and they (Coast Guard) finished it off for us,” he said. “I have to give kudos to them. They were certainly a sight for sore eyes.”
Chiero won’t be at Court Street Ford for at least three weeks. He has to stay largely immobilized for three weeks to keep the vertebrae stable, allowing it to heal on its own.
He spends much of his time on a zero-gravity reclining chair, which is designed to elevate his feet.
Aside from the obvious point of surviving what could easily have been a tragic accident, Chiero now will be able to spend more time with his 7-month-old grandson.
He knows this crash will not be far from his mind for a long time.
“This is part of my life now,” he said.
Does Chiero ever think he’ll return to Alaska? He’s not ready to throw away his fishing gear just yet.
“I wouldn’t be afraid to go back. The pilot made a wrong choice.”