Peter Stekel is shown here in August 2007 with wreckage from the aircraft that crashed on Mount Mendel in 1942. Stekel, who found the remains of airman Ernest Munn, is taking another trip there this week to see whether he can find more from the crash site. He also is writing a book about the four airmen in the crash.
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Writer Peter Stekel became intrigued by 1942 Sierra plane crash
His fascination led him to find one of the bodies.
By Mark Grossi and Cyndee Fontana / The Fresno Bee
09/07/08 22:21:04

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For Peter Stekel, a mysterious 1942 plane crash on Mendel Glacier is more than just research material for his next book.

This is a personal quest for Stekel, a 55-year-old Seattle resident who is writing "Final Flight," a book about the World War II-era crash in which four U.S. airmen died.

Stekel wants to solve the mystery of the crash, which occurred in the southern Sierra, where he has hiked and mountaineered for 40 years.

Last summer, he found a mummified body from the crash on the glacier and became personally involved in the story. He attended the funeral for the victim, cadet Ernest "Glenn" Munn.

Munn's family joyfully thanked him for finding their long-lost relative.

Stekel felt an immediate connection to them.

"They welcomed me like I was part of the family," Stekel said. "Now I really want to help all the families by figuring out what happened."

How did the training flight wind up 200 miles south of its intended destination? No one knows.

As part of his research, Stekel is back at the glacier this week, searching for more clues. He hopes to find the instrument panel or propellers to the plane, an AT-7 training aircraft.

Perhaps experts can determine the heading or the speed of the plane from the evidence at the crash site.

Will Stekel find another frozen body? It is possible. Pilot William Gamber and cadet John Mortenson still are missing. The body of cadet Leo Mustonen was found in 2005, and Munn in 2007.

The discoveries of the last two missing bodies would be powerful additions to the book, scheduled to be published in late 2009 or early 2010.

But Stekel also wants to answer the many questions left after the crash.

He wrote in his Web log: "The four men lost on that date were not movers and shakers or shapers of history -- they were regular folks, just like the rest of us. I feel it is fitting that their story be told."

Stekel, a native of New York who grew up in Los Angeles, has been a freelance writer for many years.

His work includes a novel called "The Flower Lover," about a journalist who investigates the disappearance of a rare cultivated orchid.

His work focuses on nature. He has written for many magazines and groups, including the Yosemite Association.

Stekel said his education helps him understand and write about the Sierra. He graduated from the University of California at Davis with a botany degree.

He also took graduate classes in ecology from Humboldt State University but did not complete a master's degree.

He said he was intrigued in 2005 when ice climbers discovered Mustonen's body on Mendel, which is in one of his favorite mountain areas, Kings Canyon National Park. He wrote a story about the discovery for the fall 2006 edition of Sierra Heritage Magazine, based in Auburn.

In early summer 2007, Stekel pitched the book idea to Wilderness Press in Berkeley.

That August, he visited Mendel Glacier.

As he hiked through boulders and ice, he saw what looked like a tree sticking out of the ice.

He knew trees would not grow that high in the mountains.

Then he saw the glint of Munn's gold ring.

Stekel described the scene on his Web site:

"He is leaning over a rock, his left arm curled under him as if favoring a sore shoulder. His body is desiccated, the skin black. Tatters of a rough-woven wool sweater are wrapped around him."

The news media reported the discovery around the globe.

When he returned home from the trip, he found an e-mail from Wilderness Press, inviting him to discuss the book project. Soon, he had a contract.

"What really sold the project was my finding Glenn Munn in the glacier," he said.

The reporterscan be reachedat,cfontana@fresnobee.comor (559) 441-6330.
The glint from this ring worn by Ernest Munn is what caught the eye of Peter Stekel on Mount Mendel in 2007.
The glint from this ring worn by Ernest Munn is what caught the eye of Peter Stekel on Mount Mendel in 2007.