Fossett wreckage site possibly found
Associated Press Writers
MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. ” Search teams combing a rugged part of eastern California for any sign of Steve Fossett, the adventurer who vanished on a solo flight more than a year ago, spotted what appeared to be wreckage Wednesday, authorities said.
Erica Stuart, spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, would not reveal the exact location of the reported aerial sighting, which she said was called in around sunset. Searchers had been combing a 10-mile radius around the spot where a hiker had found what appeared to be a pilot’s license and other items belonging to Fossett earlier in the week.
A ground team was en route to the site Wednesday night, and authorities would be able to confirm there is actual wreckage and whether it belongs to Fossett this morning, Stuart said.
Authorities, however, cautioned that hundreds of planes have gone down in the mountainous region, so any wreckage found could belong to other cases.
The hiker, Preston Morrow, said he found an FAA pilot’s license, a glider license, a third ID and $1,005 in cash tangled in a bush off a trail just west of the town of Mammoth Lakes on Monday.
He said he turned the items over to local police Wednesday after unsuccessful attempts to contact Fossett’s family.
Mammoth Lakes police investigator Crystal Schafer confirmed that the department had the items.
The information on the pilot license ” including Fossett’s name, address, date of birth and certificate number ” was sent in a photograph to the Federal Aviation Administration, and all matched the agency’s records, spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Late Wednesday, authorities confirmed that two documents ” including a pilot’s license ” that had been partially covered by pine needles belonged to Fossett. The other confirmed document was a membership card in the Soaring Society of America. A third document, a membership card in an aeronautics association, was too damaged for a positive identification.
Search teams led by the Madera County Sheriff’s Department were sent to the scene Wednesday in an air and ground effort to find any sign of Fossett, authorities said.
Morrow said he found no sign of a plane or any human remains.
Fossett, whose exploits included circumnavigating the globe in a balloon, disappeared Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a single-engine plane borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.
Fossett’s widow, Peggy, said in a statement Wednesday that she was aware of Morrow’s discovery and that authorities were going to the site.
“I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband’s remains,” she said. “I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort.”
Aviators had flown over Mammoth Lakes, about 90 miles south of the ranch, in the search for Fossett, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane. The most intense searching was concentrated to the north of the town, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett’s plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.
Morrow, 43, who works in a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, said he initially didn’t know who Fossett was. It wasn’t until he showed the items to co-workers Tuesday that one of them recognized Fossett’s name.
“It was just weird to find that much money in the backcountry, and the IDs,” he said in an interview. “My immediate thought was it was a hiker or backpacker’s stuff, and a bear got to the stuff and took it away to look for food or whatever.”
Morrow said he returned to the scene Tuesday to search further with his wife and three others, including a videographer who took video and photographs during the trip.
During that search, the group did not find any airplane wreckage or human remains, Morrow said. They did find a black Nautica pullover fleece, size XL, in the same area, but he wasn’t sure if the items were related.
Morrow said he consulted local attorney David Baumwohl, and they initially tried to contact the Fossett family but were unable to get through to their lawyers.
“We figured if it was us, we’d want to know first. We wouldn’t want to learn from the news,” Baumwohl said.
Baumwohl and Morrow tried to contact the law firm that handled the death declaration. When they weren’t successful, they decided to turn everything over to the police, the attorney said.
Mammoth Lakes is at an elevation of more than 7,800 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, where peaks top 13,000 feet. This year’s biggest search for Fossett focused on Nevada’s Wassuk Range, more than 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes. That search ended last month.
The California Civil Air Patrol and private planes from Hilton’s ranch previously had flown over the area, but it was “extremely rough country,” said Joe Sanford, undersheriff in Lyon County, Nev., which was involved in the initial search.
One of Fossett’s friends reacted to Wednesday’s news with cautious optimism.
If the belongings turn out to be authentic, then that could help narrow the search area for possible wreckage, said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University who worked on Fossett’s past balloon flights.
“It would be nice to get closure,” Arvidson said.
Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world’s best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.