The Great Salt Lake laps at the door of one of the 25 busiest airports in the country.
Air traffic controllers direct hundreds of planes out over its glinting waters each day in an effort to spread traffic evenly through the sky and cut down on noise over the populous city.But if any of those planes plunge into those waters between late fall and early spring, Utah rescue groups can't get to passengers in time to save their lives.
The freezing death of four California men in the lake last week underscored that grim reality. Two brothers and their sons died of exposure in the lake Feb. 13 after their single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza made a successful emergency landing in the north end of the unfrozen salt lake.
The plane left Ogden bound for California at 11:17 a.m. Twenty-five minutes later, the pilot told the tower at the Salt Lake International Airport that he had engine trouble and wanted to return to Ogden. A minute later, his plane disappeared from radar.
Despite strong evidence that the plane had crashed into the lake, the first search plane was not launched until 1:15 p.m. - 11/2 hours after the plane went down.
By then, Vern Huss, 67; his son, Randy, 34; his brother, Mack Huss, 58, and Mack's son, Brad, 32, had slipped into hypothermia-induced coma in the lake's 36-degree water. They may have been dead already.
Searchers say the men froze in the water within 10 minutes of abandoning their sinking plane. No one, they say, could have reached them in time. A hypothermia specialist at the University of Utah said death may have been much slower. (See accompanying story) But not so slow that rescuers had the luxury of three hours and 15 minutes to reach them.
Rescuers reached the bodies at 3 p.m. - an hour after planes located them.
The Feb. 13 rescue attempt was neither slow nor sloppy. Officials with the Utah Civil Air Patrol, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center say the attempt went as quickly and smoothly as possible.
"Those four people were found as fast as you could find somebody," said Air Force Major James Jenchura, watch supervisor at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Illinois. The center coordinates all inland searches for crashed planes in the continental United States. It coordinated the Feb. 13 search.
That statement carries a frightening implication: Passengers on any planes that submerge in the Great Salt Lake during Utah's wintry months are doomed to die despite surviving the crash unscathed.
Even with a mayday call to the tower and clear track on the radar, rescuers can't reach them fast enough. And if they did, they probably wouldn't have the equipment to rescue them.
The problem of time
Agencies responsible for last week's search say they acted ahead of schedule in launching planes to find the missing Bonanza. Guidelines require the FAA to notify the Air Force of a missing plane within 30 minutes after its disappearance is discovered, said Mitch Barker, public affairs specialist with the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region. On Feb. 13, the controller notified the Air Force 16 minutes after Bonanza disappeared from radar.
After being alerted, the Air Force has three hours to decide if a search is necessary, Jenchura said. On Feb. 13, the Air Force waited only 25 minutes before alerting Civil Air Patrol. It formally instructed CAP to launch a search 45 minutes after being notified of the plane's disappearance.
The CAP began putting together a search mission when it was first alerted instead of waiting until the mission was assigned, said Leonard Wojcik, CAP mission coordinator for the Feb. 13 search.
Relying on a volunteer search organization like the CAP delays any search. "We try to get an airplane into the air within an hour after being notified," Wojcik said. "That's a pretty good response when you are asking people to drop what they are doing - including their jobs - on the spur of the moment and get out to the airport. We don't always make it in an hour."
On Feb. 13, CAP got its first plane up 50 minutes after the Air Force first alerted it. The second was up in 75 minutes.
Planes unequipped for rescue
Even if those planes had found the men alive, they would have died before rescuers reached them. "I hate to say this for publication - but there isn't a damn thing we could have done except sit up there and watch them," Wojcik said.
CAP planes are not equipped to rescue passengers of crashed planes. They only find them.
Despite planes criss-crossing over the Great Salt Lake 24 hours a day, no one in the Salt Lake area is equipped to make a hasty lake rescue. If the men in the lake had been alive when CAP pilots found them, the pilots would have had to circle helplessly overhead, watching in horror as they died.
One pilot had tossed a life raft into the back of his plane before takeoff, but "imagine trying to deploy that to someone in the water," Wojcik said.
The pilot would have to inflate the raft, get it outside of the plane and drop it directly on the people in the water, he said. The people in the water would be too cold to inflate the raft or even swim to it if it didn't land right on top of them.
Rapid water rescues require helicopters with hoists - like those used to rescue passengers aboard a Boeing 737 that crashed into the Potomac River Jan. 13, 1982, after take-off. Seventy-eight people died in the crash - many suffering an icy death in the river while waiting for the hoist-equipped helicopters to reach them.
But when planes go down in the Great Salt Lake, no helicopters dangle hoists from the sky to rescue them.
"There is not a single helicopter in the area available to us that has a hoist," Wojcik said. "If LifeFlight or somebody had a lift on their chopper, it would work wonders."
But they don't. Wojcik thinks Dugway may have a helicopter with a hoist. But that's the only one he knows of and the CAP doesn't have the authority to pull it into service.
CAP's job is to find the victims, not rescue them. Law enforcement agencies in the county where the plane goes down are responsible for the rescue. But they are as ill-equipped as CAP. Box Elder County Sheriff's office handled the Feb. 13 rescue. The best officers could do was ask a shrimp boat to go fetch the men in the lake once they were located.
The boat arrived an hour later. It wasn't equipped to rescue the victims. The men aboard the boat were not trained to do the aggressive and highly sophisticated resuscitation necessary to revive them from the deep hypothermic coma that can appear as death.
Don Zakraisek's crash into the Great Salt Lake a month ago illustrates how slow and inept rescues on the Great Salt Lake can be during the winter.
Don Zakraisek's single-engine plane stalled, flipped and landed upside down in the lake Jan. 13 - one month to the day before the Bonanza went down. He lived because his plane did not completely submerge and he was able to huddle on its tail until help arrived.
Help was nine hours in coming. His plane crashed into the lake at 12:45 p.m., a half mile from shore. The water was 26 degrees. Zakraisek could not have survived a swim or wade to shore.
Zakraisek was found at 7:30 p.m. when a passing motorist heard him yell from his perch in the lake.
But it took rescuers another 90 minutes to reach him in chest-deep water a half-mile from land.
"They sent a helicopter out, but it couldn't get to me. I'm not sure why. I heard they got one boat stuck trying to get it out there. They finally ended up getting a rubber raft and paddling out with that," Zakraisek said.
Not that he's complaining. Zakraisek is grateful to be alive and deeply grateful to his rescuers.
But Zakraisek's plunge into the lake last month and the deaths last week raise a terrifying question: What happens if a jet laden with scores or hundreds of passengers drops into the icy lake?
"Jeez, if we were to lose a big plane out there . . . Don't even mention it," said Wojcik. "There would be plenty of choppers available, but as far as actually being able to pull somebody out, it is pretty slim."
After his nine hours on the wintry lake, Zakraisek concluded, "If you do land in the lake, your chances of survival are just about nil."
And if a large plane with hundreds of passengers plunges into the lake to face those kinds of chances? "There will be hell to pay," Wojcik said.
He doesn't think it's going to happen. But until last week, he didn't think two planes would crash into the lake within a month.
Chronology of airplance crashes
February 13, 1991
11:17 am. Plane departed Ogden Municipal Airport for California.
11:43 Pilot told air traffic controller at Salt Lake International Airport he had a rough running engine and would return to the Ogden airport.
11:44 Controller gave pilot clearance to turn back to Ogden, but got no reply . Controller tried repeatedly to contact the plane.
11:45 Controller asked commercial plane in the area to help contact the plane. Attempts failed.
11:46 A commericial pilot told the controller his radio had picked up the emergency signal emitted by a crashed plane. Controller sought permission to notify Air Force or a missing plane.
12:00 Controller phoned Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Illinois and reported a missing plane. Formal telex notification sent 10 minutes later.
12:06 Air Force called Utah Search and Rescue Coordinator to report a possible missing plane. Coordinator took no action.
12:18 Air Force called Utah Search and Rescue Coordinator to report a possible missing plane. Coordinator took no action.
12:25 Utah coordinator authorized Air Force to put Utah Civil Air Patrol an alert. CAP alerted.
12:26 CAP began calling out search crews.
12:34 National weather service told Air Force that search and rescue satellites had not picked up any emergency signal from a downed plane in the Satl Lake area.
12:37 Air Force asked Salt Lake controller to verify transmission of emergency signal.
12:43 Utah Coordinator authorized Air Force to activate the CAP.
12:47 CAP formally assigned a search mission.
12:51 Analysis of radar track showed mission plane's location in the lake. That location reported to Air Force, which reported it to CAP.
1:15 First CAP plane took off from Salt Lake.
1:40 Second CAP plane took off from Ogden.
1:59 Second CAP plane spotted debris in lake.
12:45 CAP commander confirmed that bodies had been located.
3:00 Shrimp boats reached crash site and began recovering bodies. *****
Human bodies plunged into icy water lose heat 25 times faster than if they were exposed to icy air.
In 36-degree water - the reported temperature of the water on Feb. 13, the day the Bonanza went down - the four passengers would have lost consciousness in about 20 minutes, said Dr. Robert D. Herr, a clinical instructor at the University of Utah Medical School. Herr lectures and publishes articles about hypothermia.
In any other lake in the country, unconsciousness would have meant complete immersion and drowning.
But not in the Great Salt Lake. The same salt content that keeps the lake from freezing over kept the four men afloat.
When Airmed pilot Shannon Hall found the four bodies floating in the lake at 2 p.m., three were floating on their backs with their faces out of the water.
If the men had been reached within the hour by rescuers trained in prolonged, aggressive resuscitation, they might have been saved, Herr said.
"Survivals in hypothermic waters can be dramatic," Herr said. "People can be resuscitated after up to an hour of submersion even though unconsciousness could come quickly."