San Francisco Chronicle
Emotional trek to Sierra crash site for man who lost legs at age 10
(11-25) 04:00 PST White Mountain, Mono County -- Donnie Priest pulls off his left leg and tinkers with his prosthetic ankle as casually as another hiker might tighten his bootlaces.
He can see the crash site now, but it's still a thousand vertical feet above him and the route up the mountain is about to get dicey. As Priest uses an Allen wrench to adjust the angle of his carbon-fiber foot for the steepening terrain, he's beginning to have doubts.
"That mountain already tried to take me once," he says, squinting up at 12,057-foot White Mountain.
"Why give it the opportunity to do it twice?"
On Jan. 3, 1982, a small plane carrying Priest, his mother and stepfather crashed into the peak during the deadliest winter storm to pound Northern California in a generation. Priest, then 10, was the only survivor. The drama of his rescue after five days in the wreckage captivated a battered Bay Area desperate for good news and turned the boy into a minor celebrity for a time
- even as surgeons amputated both his frostbitten lower legs.
He and his rescuers eventually moved on to new chapters in their lives. But sometime last year, for reasons guys generally aren't good at articulating, Priest, now 35, began to feel something drawing him back to White Mountain for the first time since the crash.
"There was always an empty void in me," he said, "a hundred unanswered questions."
The man Priest is today - a successful Vacaville small-business owner who builds and fits prosthetics for amputees - is irrevocably tied to the plane crash and its aftermath.
Over the last 26 years he has thought often of the people who risked their lives to save his. He yearned to be with them again, to hear their stories, to fill in the pieces and to reinforce the bonds they will always share.
Which is how he came to be scrambling up White Mountain on his prosthetic legs two months ago in the company of the search-and-rescue guru who solved the riddle of where his plane went down, the hawk-eyed ranger who spotted a needle in a 50-square-mile haystack and the mountaineer who risked everything to reach him.
It was a hell of a storm, the most lethal natural disaster to strike Northern California since the
1906 earthquake. On the third day of 1982, a freak confluence of two enormous fronts stalled over the region and pummeled it for three days, at one point dropping almost 2 feet of rain in 24 hours.
Thirty-three people lost their lives. In Pacifica, three children died asleep in their beds when two houses slid down a hillside. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, a tsunami of mud buried the entire community of Love Creek, killing 10 people.
And, at the Mammoth Airport, just east of Yosemite National Park, Ronald Vaughan was preparing to do something really stupid.
The 38-year-old Chevron research chemist, a moderately experienced private pilot, was in a hurry to get home to Orinda. He and his two passengers had to be back at work and at school the next day.
Vaughan had piloted his beloved single-engine Grumman American AA-5B Tiger from the Bay Area to a family Christmas gathering in Oklahoma. Now, on the way home, he'd flown as far as Mammoth, below the sheer eastern wall of the Sierra Nevada, where he stopped to refuel for the final leg.
But as the winter storm gathered in strength, flight controllers on the ground denied his plan to proceed directly across the mountains via Yosemite's 9,943-foot-high Tioga Pass. Vaughan filed an alternate flight plan that would take him north to Reno, but moments after he was airborne he got on the radio and told flight controllers he was heading for Tioga Pass after all. There was nothing they could do to stop him.
In the seat next to Vaughan was his wife, Lee, a Chevron attorney and also a trained pilot. Behind them slept Donnie, her 10-year-old son from a previous marriage.
Flying into the turbulent maw of the storm, the plane wandered off course, north into a dead-end canyon. Vaughan radioed flight controllers that he was being buffeted by violent downdrafts.
Shortly after that he radioed to say he was losing altitude and could see the ground. That's the last anyone heard from him.
Donnie, who was dozing in the back seat, doesn't remember any of it.
Finding a downed airplane in a vast and wintry wilderness isn't easy, even under the best of circumstances. And in this case search and rescue teams started with extra disadvantages: The plane's Emergency Locator Transmitter, which would normally switch on upon impact, didn't go off, possibly because a snowdrift cushioned the force of the crash. Some of the original flight data searchers got from the Federal Aviation Administration was simply wrong, and one crucial piece of information was initially missing. And the storm was blowing with such fury that it would be three days before anyone could get a search helicopter into the air.
Nobody said it, but as the days passed it grew more and more likely they'd be involved in a body recovery operation, not a rescue.
While search aircraft remained grounded, a call went out to Chas and Anne Macquarie. The Yosemite wilderness rangers had been spending the winter at Tuolumne Meadows, dozens of miles from the nearest plowed road. Snowed in at their cabin, they checked on cross-country skiers, shoveled snow off park buildings and kept an eye as best they could on hundreds of square miles of the park's high country.
It takes a special kind of person to handle such a lonely and isolated assignment, and Yosemite had two of them in the Macquaries. They'd spent their honeymoon climbing 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, twice - once by what's probably its hardest route.
As soon as they got the call about the crash, the Macquaries loaded their backpacks with first-aid and survival gear, strapped on their snowshoes and set off toward where radar initially indicated the plane had been heading: Tioga Pass,
8 miles away.
They didn't get far. Busting a trail through fresh snow that reached up to their hips, they exhausted themselves for a full day and managed to travel only a mile. They went back out the next day and tried again. They got only a little farther. The snow continued to fall.
Inside the wreckage
The five days Donnie spent inside the wrecked plane were a blur - "more like a still picture than a movie," he recalls.
Remarkably, the boy wasn't seriously injured. He vaguely remembers trying to reach a sleeping bag stored behind him, but couldn't pull it free. He has a hazy memory of trying to use the radio to call for help, finding it dead and trying to read the manual to fix it.
He recalls rummaging through his mother's purse - for food, probably. He didn't find any. Parched, he sucked on handfuls of snow that had drifted in through the cracked windshield, but "it wasn't enough. I was super, super thirsty."
In the seats in front of him slumped the bodies of his mother and stepfather. Autopsies would show they'd perished immediately upon impact.
"I knew they were dead," Priest said, "but as a little kid you don't understand that death means forever."
Three days after the crash, the storm lifted enough for the search-and-rescue team at Lemoore Naval Air Station, south of Fresno, to get a helicopter into the air.
Based on the plane's last-known radar position, the Civil Air Patrol and Yosemite's search-and-rescue team figured they'd have to search about 120 square miles east of Yosemite National Park.
A Lemoore chopper went up with its own rescue crew and a pair of Yosemite rangers, but found nothing. It returned the following day and searched a wider area. Still nothing.
It wasn't until the afternoon of the fourth day after the crash that the search teams learned that Vaughan had amended his flight plan shortly after taking off. This changed everything.
In Yosemite Valley, John Dill stayed up long into the night plotting every piece of radar data he could find by hand, along with information about the aircraft's capabilities. Dill, the MIT-educated guru of Yosemite search and rescue, is an almost mythical figure in the field, the inventor of highly technical methods to rescue injured climbers from vertical and even overhanging cliffs.
Some time in the wee hours of the morning, Dill began to suspect some of the radar data was simply wrong. That, along with the amended flight plan, suggested the plane might have crashed not in the direction of its last-known heading - which was the logical assumption - but somewhere on the eastern flanks of Mount Conness and White Mountain. It was, at best, a well-educated guess.
As the sun came up on the fifth day after the crash, Dill knew there wasn't much time left. The chances of anyone surviving this long were down to almost nothing, and another storm was on the way.
"It was now or never," he said recently. Search crews decided "to put all our chips on a small, high-probability area and then cross our fingers."
Among the searchers in the Lemoore chopper that day was Jim Sano, a Yosemite ranger with unusually sharp eyes, experience in aerial searches and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the area. He'd climbed every mountain in the region save one.
Late in the morning, the helicopter was passing over the eastern slopes of White Mountain, an area it had searched several times before, when Sano saw something: a shadow on the snow. It was formed by the tip of the plane's tail. Only a few feet of tail poked out of the fresh snow; the rest of the plane was invisible, completely buried. Things quickly moved into high gear.
Because the mountainside was so sheer, the rescue team needed an expert mountaineer: The helicopter raced back to Tuolumne Meadows, dropped off Sano and picked up Chas Macquarie, who joined his wife Anne inside.
The slope at the crash site was too steep for the helicopter to land, so it touched down on the ridge above and dropped off the Macquaries.
As the chopper clattered away, Chas looked at the slope below him and had a very bad feeling. Deep and unconsolidated, the snow was clearly primed to avalanche. A huge crack had already split the surface.
"I could tell it was on the edge of going," he said.
He decided to chance it. The couple roped up, and Anne belayed Chas as he tiptoed 100 feet down the quivering slope toward the crash site. Somehow, the snow held.
"When I got to the site I started digging right away," he said. "The helicopter was low on gas and wanted to leave. But as soon as my shovel hit the plane I heard Donnie cry out."
A survivor! Chas shouted the news to Anne who, ignoring the avalanche danger, bounded down the slope. Together they dug out theback of the fuselage enough to open the rear window. Inside they saw a little boy in a T-shirt, his skin almost white from the cold.
Above them, with gusts howling and the fuel warning light flickering, Navy pilot Dan Ellison maneuvered the helicopter into position and lowered Chief Petty Officer Jerry Balderson on a cable. The wind-chill factor outside was estimated at somewhere between minus 40 and minus 60 degrees.
Working quickly - "I thought the whole slope could avalanche at any moment," said Chas - the Macquaries helped get Donnie into a harness. As he and Balderson were being winched back up to the helicopter, the boy's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell into a coma. His body temperature would later be measured at 84 degrees. Few people survive that.
So difficult and dangerous was the rescue that Ellison would later be awarded the Navy's Distinguished Flying Cross and Balderson the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the services' second- highest noncombat award.
To the pitcher's mound
Donnie's rescue was front-page news all over the Bay Area. Reporters and TV cameras covered his stay in the Fresno hospital, his transfer to Stanford University Medical Center, the amputation of his lower legs, his release from the hospital and his first day in his new school.
Famous people came to visit: Rickey Henderson and Mike Norris of the Oakland A's dropped by his hospital bed in Fresno, and, a few days after throwing the touchdown pass that resulted in what will forever be known as "The Catch," Joe Montana took time out from his Super Bowl preparations to drop by and present Donnie with a Betamax VCR, a gift from the 49ers.
Four months after the crash, the boy was back in the news again: The Oakland A's invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day at the Oakland Coliseum. That was the incentive Donnie needed to train with his new prosthetic legs, and just a few days after being fitted he was able to walk out to the pitcher's mound without crutches to a standing ovation.
Getting on with life
The reporters and TV cameras eventually moved on to the next story, and Donnie began the less-glamorous business of getting on with his life.
He was lucky in one regard: He wasn't orphaned by the crash. He had another set of parents, Don and Cathy Priest, his father and stepmother, who lived in Portola Valley. He moved in with them and they arranged for psychological counseling.
But, they say, the boy adjusted to his new circumstances with surprisingly little trouble.
"He never complained, never said, 'Life is unfair,' " said his father, Don Priest, a sales manager with IBM. "He never had that 'Why me?'
moment. He just wanted to do everything his friends could do."
Kids are far more resilient emotionally than their parents give them credit for, said Donnie, who has since spent time with several young amputees.
"At that age you're too young to appreciate what you can't do," he said. "You're just focused on doing what you can do. I hadn't formed an image of myself yet, so what happened wasn't a dramatic change. I had age on my side. I think it was harder on my family than on me."
His father and stepmother, he said, handled things remarkably well.
They never coddled or babied him. When he reached junior high school, he had to walk up a long, steep hill every day to reach the campus; his parents didn't drive him. Nor did they stop him when he had to use a wheelchair after follow-up surgery and bombed down the hill without brakes.
"I crashed and popped the tires on my chair," he recalls. "My dad just showed me how to fix the tire, and told me from then on it was my job.
Sometimes you've just got to let kids be kids."
In school he turned out to be a good athlete. He learned to ski, both in snow and in the water. In
1993 he won the Disabled World Water Ski Tournament in France. Donnie made the varsity wrestling team at Menlo-Atherton High School, and, wrestling without his prosthetic legs, won a lot of matches against baffled opponents.
His college years, though, didn't go as smoothly.
Priest bounced from university to university, from major to major, never settling into a field where he felt comfortable. "Officially I was studying engineering," he said, "but I was really studying the local bars." It took him years, but eventually he found his métier: He learned to build and fit prosthetics for amputees.
"It's the most challenging and rewarding thing I've ever done," he said. "It's carpentry, sculpting, automotive body work, pre-med biology, psychology and physics."
After working for a large firm for three years, Priest moved to Vacaville last December and went into business for himself.
"Being an amputee doesn't necessarily make you a good prosthetist," he said. "But there are little things you know that other people wouldn't."
Donnie, for instance, has a better handle on emotions new amputees go through. Besides the expected ones - denial, anger, bargaining, etc. - there is a big one able-bodied people don't always appreciate: frustration.
"You're learning to walk all over again, and if your prosthetics aren't just right it can be really painful and awkward and embarrassing," he said. "Frustration is a really, really big part of it."
Once, when he was 12, he got so frustrated with his prosthetist that he dumped a bottle of talcum powder on the man's head.
"Now, if one of my patients gets frustrated with me, I don't take it personally at all," he said.
"I just think about the talcum powder and laugh."
Over the years, Donnie saw John Dill a few times on visits to Yosemite Valley, and exchanged Christmas cards with some of his other rescuers.
In a strange coincidence, his father and Jim Sano's father worked together at IBM. But as the years passed, he lost touch with most of the people who saved his life.
As he worked to finish college and start his new career, he spent less time reflecting on the crash and its aftermath. But a little over a year ago, something changed.
"I'd finally gotten my own life in order," he said. "I'd gone from being a burden on society to someone who was starting to give back. I'd completed the circle, and now it was time to look for some closure in my own life."
It was important to him, he realized, to show the people who'd risked it all to keep him alive that he was now successful and contributing positively to society.
Once the idea of a reunion was in his head, it didn't take long to track down his rescuers.
"I am," he said, "pretty good with Google."
Return to the crash site
"It's amazing," says Cathy Priest, "that something so tragic could happen in a place so beautiful."
The first snowfall of the season has dusted the summit of White Mountain as Donnie and Cathy Priest pick their way up its lower slopes with Chas Macquarie, Jim Sano and John Dill.
This is the first time Donnie has set eyes on the peak. Trapped in the wreckage, he never saw the landscape around him. But if it unlocks any visceral memories or fears he shows no sign of it. He's eager to get on with the business of climbing to the crash site.
The trail quickly peters out, and the going is harder than Donnie expects. Crossing a rushing stream on a slick, wobbly log, he catches a carbon-fiber toe on a snag and goes down hard, pulling off one of his prosthetic legs.
Each step Donnie takes requires half again as much energy as an able-boded person expends, and as the altimeter hits 10,000 feet he's breathing hard. To get up one particularly steep section, he gets down on all fours and crawls.
Reminiscing will have to wait.
At timberline, the group enters an alpine world of castle-like granite peaks and sparkling sapphire tarns. The crash site comes into view, but the route to it doesn't look good: It's a steep slope of loose, tipsy boulders - difficult enough for someone with feeling in his feet, and dangerous if not impossible for someone without.
One rescue from White Mountain is enough for anyone. After a couple of hours of struggling, Donnie decides this is close enough. "It's steeper than I expected," he says. "Seeing the terrain, I'm even more in awe of what my rescuers did. I'd love to get up there, but it's more important to be safe."
Next to a gorgeous alpine lake he sits down on a sun-warmed granite boulder and stares silently at the place where his life veered off on its current trajectory. He can clearly see where the airplane smacked into the mountainside, and the ridge above it where the helicopter dropped off Chas and Anne. Donnie had always wondered how near the plane was to clearing the mountain, and now he can see that it wasn't even close: It crashed almost 800 feet below the crest.
The realization unlocks some difficult emotions.
"I hate to bash anyone who isn't around," he said weeks after the climb, time enough for the sharp details of the crash to cut through to emotion, "but how could a parent and a guardian take such risks with a child? My mother was a pilot. She knew what was going on. How could she have made such a mistake?"
The answers Donnie may never know. But what he does know is that the mistake, and what followed, made him the man he is today.
"There comes a point in your life when you ask yourself who you are, what your heritage is. Who I am comes from what happened up there."
He's pushed himself over the years to get to the point where he can give something back to society, using his hard-won experience to help ease his patients through the difficulty and frustration of learning to walk on new legs.
And every day he draws inspiration from the rescuers who refused to give up on him.
"When I'm having trouble getting a patient fitted just right with a prosthetic, I think of Chas and Anne fighting through the snow for a whole day just to go 1 mile, or John staying up all night plotting radar data, or Dan in a blind hover when he was almost out of fuel. That's what inspires me."
-- To see the video report of the reunion hiking trip to the site of the crash and learn more about the story, go to sfgate.com.
Where are they now?
Chas Macquarie is the chief executive officer of Lumos & Associates, an engineering firm in Carson City, Nev. Anne Macquarie is a civil engineer at the firm. Jim Sano is president of Geographic Expeditions, an adventure travel company based in San Francisco. John Dill still works with the search and rescue team in Yosemite Valley, finding new and better ways to save the lives of park visitors. Jerry Balderson lives in Hawaii and works as a civilian on military interceptor systems. Dan Ellison is retired and living in Montana, where Donnie Priest visited him recently for some fly fishing.
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