As wildlife advocates mourned the plane-crash death of Gordon Haber, the biologist who spent 40 years documenting the lives and societies of Denali's wolves, his pilot was recovering Friday in a burn center in Seattle after hiking 20 miles back to civilization.
Details of the crash and rescue operation in the heart of Denali National Park emerged Friday, two days after the Cessna 185 used by Haber crashed in spruce trees near the East Fork of the Toklat River, the locale of one of the wolf packs Haber was studying.
The pilot, Daniel McGregor, 35, told a park ranger that he was able to free himself from the wreckage, according to Clint Johnson, senior investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
But as McGregor struggled to free Haber, the plane caught fire and he had to abandon his efforts, Johnson said.
Johnson said he didn't know if Haber was conscious -- or even alive -- at the time, but hoped to get that information from McGregor when he recovers sufficiently to be interviewed, probably in the next week or two, he said.
Haber had a permit to study Denali wolves. In the air over the park Wednesday afternoon, he picked up a signal from a wolf's radio collar in the East Fork Valley, Johnson said, and McGregor began flying an orbiting pattern as they spotted the pack. It was gusty.
Nick Rodrick, a camper who drove McGregor out of the park, said McGregor told him that heavy winds coming down the valley "caught the plane wrong."
"He was pulling up trying to control the plane and he just lost it," Rodrick said.
McGregor told rangers he hit the trees at about 90 mph.
No one received an emergency locator signal from the plane, Johnson said. It was reported missing late Wednesday and a search was launched Thursday.
After spending Wednesday night at the scene, McGregor began walking south, up the valley toward the park road. The East Fork Valley is wide, with braided river channels, gravel and bluffs. Snow that had fallen earlier had melted.
A Civil Air Patrol plane spotted the wreckage first, around 3 p.m. Thursday. A trooper landed a fixed-wing plane nearby and hiked up to the smoldering wreckage. But it was getting dark and he had to leave. He was replaced by two rangers who planned to camp at the scene.
McGregor was walking while the search was under way, walking when the plane was found, walking when the trooper landed. It was seven miles to the road, and another eight to the unoccupied ranger cabin near the Igloo Creek campground.
The only two campers in the park were at that campground: Rodrick, 19, of Penacook, N.H., and buddy Jesse Hoagland, 20, of Loudon, N.H. The two aspiring filmmakers left home Sept. 25 on an adventure trip in a 1995 Chevy van, planning to produce a documentary of their travels.
Around 7 p.m., as dark was falling at the campground, Rodrick and Hoagland heard something in the distance.
"He thought it was a person, I thought it sounded like wolves," Rodrick said in a telephone interview Friday from Denali Park. "I was like, 'Don't worry about it.' And then we heard it again."
This time, it was clear. "Helloooo, hellloooo."
They walked to the entrance of the campground and spotted McGregor, wet and disheveled and obviously hurt, but coherent.
"He came staggering up to us," Rodrick said. "We saw him -- his fleece was all burned. It kind of freaked us out at first."
They got McGregor back to their campsite. They had no idea there had been a plane crash in the park or that a search had been under way all day.
"He told us he had lost a guy out there," Rodrick said. "He was really in rough shape."
They fed the man crackers, a granola bar and a banana and gave him water, Gatorade and a jacket. Their van was parked about five miles away at Teklanika Campground, the farthest that visitors are permitted to drive into the park this time of year. They set off for the van about 8 p.m.
"He was walking on his own," Rodrick said. "He told us he was starting to see things in the woods. You could tell he had been in the woods, with no food, no water. We kept him talking."
They got to the van but were out of cell phone range. As they headed toward the Parks Highway, they drove right by ranger headquarters near the park entrance. McGregor was finally able to reach someone on his phone, and they met some people at the headquarters of Denali Air, outside the park.
The pilot climbed into a car driven by a friend who was going to take him to a hospital, but they turned back after they called 911 and were told an ambulance was heading in their direction.
Moore, who is also a medic, examined McGregor in the car when it got back to Denali Air, then got him into an ambulance to Healy, the next town north of the park. There, he was met by an air ambulance that flew him to a burn center in Seattle, where he was reported in satisfactory condition.