Gene Ebell is led away from a helicopter after being rescued from the snowy Sierra crash site where he spent 15 days. Ebell and fellow survivor Robert Starr stuffed their clothes with plane insulation to keep warm.
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Persistent friends saved pair after 15-day Sierra ordeal
By Cyndee Fontana and Mark Grossi / The Fresno Bee
09/15/08 23:17:56
Gene Ebell saw treetops and knew he was in trouble.

Ebell, an insurance agent in Fresno, was a passenger on a flight to Elko, Nev. He was headed to pick up the body of his uncle, who had recently died.

But over the stormy Sierra, Ebell watched ice build on the wings of the single-engine plane.

The Cessna lost altitude, clipped several trees and crashed almost upside down.

The pilot was dead. But Ebell, 34, and 17-year-old high school student Robert Starr lived through the accident.

It was Jan. 11, 1970. Over the next 15 days, Ebell and Starr survived an incredible ordeal. And those close to them demonstrated the power of friends, family and faith.

Searching for lost friends

Back in Fresno, Bob Thomas heard chatter about a missing plane carrying his friend, Ebell.

Thomas, then a circulation district manager for The Fresno Bee, met Ebell when both worked at the newspaper in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ebell bought Thomas his first beer; they were poker buddies.

Now Thomas was worried. He and a few other friends decided to help look for their friend.

Glenn Noble walked away from a job at a box factory. John Norton's boss at a local grocery store told him to take as much time as he needed.

Said Norton: "There's not many people in your lifetime that you would do that for. ... But it was something that you thought you had to do."

Ebell's friends headed to Jackson, east of Sacramento in the northern Sierra.

Authorities believed the plane crashed 40 or 50 miles from the small town based on its flight path and last radio transmission.

Naively, Thomas thought they'd find Ebell and be back to work the next day.

Poor weather hampered both ground and air searches. Days dragged on with no success. Some local officials were pessimistic.

"We'll find them when the snow melts," Thomas was told.

For friends and relatives of all three missing men, that wasn't good enough. Some had no confidence in the official search; Thomas simply didn't believe local authorities were looking at all.

The volunteers from Fresno crafted their own plans.

Crash in the Sierra

Starr, a student pilot, was just along for the ride that day. The McLane High School senior dressed in slacks, shirt and tie to look professional as he rode alongside the pilot, Donald Shaver.

Starr watched as the plane became little more than "a flying ice cube" over the Sierra.

The Cessna was at an altitude of 12,000 feet -- about 1,000 feet below the minimum federal safety standard for the area. The plane dropped another 4,000 feet as the pilot turned back.

Like Ebell, Starr could see treetops. Then, a ridge materialized from a cloudbank.

The plane hit four trees as it crashed into the ground. Starr smashed into the instrument panel, gouging his face and left eye. He crawled out the broken windshield.

In the back, Ebell hung upside down from his passenger seat. He released his seatbelt and dropped to the bottom of the plane.

Ebell coughed up blood; his chest and abdomen ached. He crawled out of the plane, but Starr helped him back in.

Neither was dressed for snow. There was no food on the flight.

All they had were their wits.

Hampered by weather

From Jackson, authorities outlined a search area. News accounts said the pilot radioed an alarm near Echo Summit in El Dorado County; officials focused on territory roughly around the El Dorado/Amador County line.

But Thomas and others developed a slightly different plan based on radar reports showing the plane might have disappeared close to Highway 88. The group pinned a map to a motel room wall and concentrated on 20 or 30 miles along the highway.

With local volunteers, they set out in snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles. They tore maps into pieces and handed the bits to searchers.

But weather was a constant enemy. An Air Force search-and-rescue effort was suspended Jan. 18. Some volunteers from Fresno had to go home.

After about 10 days, the group was short of cash and worried about chances for survival. They decided they needed a helicopter to conduct a closer search.

Friends and family of the three men set up a trust fund and raised nearly $1,000. It wasn't the $1,500 needed for two hours of airtime, but Thomas rented the helicopter anyway.

Stranded for two weeks

It snowed for 11 days after the crash. The cold and lack of food might have killed some. But Starr had the gift of youth; Ebell was a runner and in good shape.

In those days, Ebell said, people who saw someone running on the street expected to find a police officer chasing them. So he ran laps in the backyard.

The conditioning helped, Ebell figured, as did a bit of gluttony the night before the flight. He'd eaten four bowls of a friend's bean casserole.

In the Cessna, Ebell and Starr huddled together for warmth. They stuffed their clothing with the plane's insulation and foam padding from the seats.

They tried to eat toothpaste and captured rainwater in air sickness bags.

The hunger wasn't as bad as the cold, or the thirst, Ebell said. He gave up -- but only briefly. He thought about his wife and two young sons.

Ebell prayed, but not for rescue. He wasn't extremely religious and thought that would be selfish. So he prayed for guidance on how to help himself.

On the 11th day, after the sky cleared, Ebell and Starr tried to walk out. The snow was knee-deep, and they turned back.

Exhausted, they took a few days to recover. On the 14th day, Starr hiked out -- taking the plane's compass with him.

"It was either stay there and die, or walk out," he said.

Starr walked in a circle. Just before stopping for the night, he saw smoke billowing from a stand of trees in the distance. He couldn't reach it or see the source.

Helicopter rescue

It was Jan. 26, and the Fresno volunteers bet all the cash they had -- and some they didn't -- on the helicopter. They sent it toward an area where smoke had been spotted by search teams.

Within a few hours, the helicopter crew saw Starr and radioed word of survivors. Said Thomas: "We jumped for joy -- it was like hitting the lotto."

To his friends at the airport, Ebell didn't look too bad. Padding masked his weight loss, and he could walk gingerly.

"I remember grabbing him and giving him a big hug," Noble said. "Then someone said: 'Don't squeeze him too much, he's got some broken ribs.' "

There was never any explanation for the smoke that brought the helicopter to Starr. But the area was within the volunteers' search grid.

Both Ebell and Starr were hospitalized. Starr's black feet worried the medical staff until they discovered that the dye from his socks was responsible.

Both had frostbite. Ebell lost the tips of several toes and suffered nerve damage in his feet.

On Jan. 30, four days after their rescue, Ebell and Starr returned to a joyous welcome in Fresno. Hundreds of people, including the McLane High School band, packed the airport as Starr and Ebell were wheeled into ambulances that took them to Saint Agnes Medical Center.

Recognition of sacrifice

In the weeks after the crash, Ebell wrote dozens of thank-you letters. He felt changed -- able to see the world more clearly and appreciate the simplicity of nature's beauty.

Two or three years after the crash, Ebell and his friends went back to the site. The plane had been removed in 1970, but bits of plastic and metal still remained.

On the 20th anniversary of the crash, Starr called Ebell and the two spoke briefly.

Starr, now 56 and living in San Ramon, worked a few years as a mortician. He then joined a manufacturing company and moved around the country. He even became a flight instructor -- using his own crash experience to convey the dangers of icing.

Ebell, who owns an insurance office in Clovis, never thought too much about the crash. But a few years ago, he woke one night with an inspiration.

He wrote a letter to five friends who helped save him and invited them to lunch. There, he handed each $3,000 and refused to take it back.

The dollar amount held no special significance, said Ebell, now 73. It was just what he could afford -- a recognition of their sacrifice and an invaluable bond.

Said Ebell: "I really didn't realize I had so many friends."

The reporters can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com, mgrossi@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.
Gene Ebell explains how he braced himself before the plane he was riding in crashed into a snowy mountainside in the Sierra.
Gene Ebell explains how he braced himself before the plane he was riding in crashed into a snowy mountainside in the Sierra.