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The last embraces
Family Members Talk About Five Missing In Plane
By Chris Collins
Steve and Terri Smith have fond memories of Thanksgiving and are heading toward Christmas with grateful, but broken, hearts.
They are grateful that their last visit with Steve’s oldest son, Dale, and his family ended with embraces and expressions of love for one another.
And they are grateful for the outpouring of support they have received from people all over the world since the plane piloted by Dale disappeared on Dec. 1.
But they are heartbroken at the overwhelming realization that the five people aboard appear to have been lost to them while flying over the dense forests and steep mountains of central Idaho en route from Baker City to Butte, Mont.
“We’re so grateful to Baker for all the prayers, donations and concern we’ve experienced from the community,” Steve Smith, 72, said Wednesday during an interview at his home on Mill Creek Lane tucked up against the Elkhorn Mountains, about 10 miles west of Baker City.
“We can’t believe the outpouring we’ve received as a family,” he says as tears well in his eyes and then roll down his cheeks as he thinks of the five people missing since their single-engine plane lost power that December afternoon.
In addition to Steve’s son, Dale Smith, a 51-year-old software executive from San Jose, Calif., the six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft carried Dale’s 26-year-old son, Daniel, and his 20-year-old daughter, Amber; Daniel’s wife, Sheree, 26; and Amber’s fiancé, Jonathan Norton, 24.
The group had flown to Baker City for their second Thanksgiving with Steve and Terri, who moved to Baker County 10 years ago from San Jose after first traveling for a visit with Steve’s brother, Jim Smith, and his wife, Loy, who live nearby on Ben Dier Lane.
Steve and Terri’s blended family includes Steve’s three sons, Dale; Darren, 43, who lives in Pennsylvania; and Dellon, 39, who works as a bush pilot in Alaska.
Terri, 55, has two daughters. Katie Morrissey, 27, lives with the couple at their home overlooking the Baker Valley.
Katie is an English major, studying online through Eastern Oregon University. Terri’s other daughter, Kelly Morrissey, 23, lives at San Jose.
In the time spent searching for his son’s plane and those aboard during the first week of December, Steve says their family “has expanded considerably.”
For this year’s Thanksgiving visit, Dale first flew to Baker City to deliver his wife, Janis, and their two younger sons, Craig, 17, and Nathan, 12, to his Steve and Terri’s house.
Dale then flew to Butte to pick up the other four. Dale and Janis’ other daughter, Crystal, and her husband, Michael Christensen, drove up from Provo, Utah. (Crystal had just recently completed chemotherapy for bone cancer.)
“We just had a wonderful weekend,” Terri said of the Thanksgiving celebration.
In addition to sharing a holiday dinner, the family went bowling, caught a movie at the Eltrym Theater, and some, including Dale, even took a ride aboard a homemade go-cart down the road leading from the Smiths’ home to Pocahontas Road.
Before Dale and the four others boarded the plane to leave Baker City, the Smiths, who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, attended Sunday service.
“I really felt there were blessings,” Terri said. “We had just been to church and had sacrament. They were all temple worthy and on the right path. I took that as a blessing.”
And while some people might direct their anger toward God in the midst of tragedy, the Smiths say there has been none of that from their family.
“They’re in God’s hands,” Steve said. “We find comfort in a loving God who takes care of us.”
The five left from the Baker City airport after church with a supply of sandwiches, jellies and jams that Terri had packed for their trip. The group also had water and warm clothing aboard.
And hugs, kisses and words of love were exchanged before the family members parted. They had planned to reunite on Jan. 4, the date set for Amber and Jonathan’s wedding.
It was about 11:30 a.m. Dec. 1 when the five flew out of Baker City. Dale was expected back in Baker City that afternoon to pick up his wife and two boys for their return trip home to California, the Smiths said.
“Somewhere along there I got a feeling something was wrong,” the elder Smith says of that winter afternoon.
He remembers his son expressing concern before he left about the weather, and in hindsight Steve wishes he’d have persuaded Dale not to make the trip.
“He said there was a possibility of icing,” Steve recalled. “You look back and you say, ‘how could I have prevented that? How could I have stopped it.’ ”
Terri and Janis had been tracking the plane on the Internet service FlightAware as it made its way east. About 2 p.m. Janis noticed that the flight had diverted to Salmon, Idaho. And then the line of flight stopped, Terri said.
Terri called her pilot dad and other pilot friends to see what they thought of what the women had seen on the Internet.
At one point Terri says she turned to her husband and asked, “Should we be calling people?
“And he said yes.”
Their online research led them to the Johnson Creek airstrip near the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Janis then called emergency telephone numbers. Once she reached authorities in Valley County, Idaho, the Smith family learned that a search for Dale’s plane had already begun.
Searchers later told them that Dale Smith called air traffic controllers asking for coordinates to make an emergency landing at the Johnson Creek airstrip. And a short time later, at about 1 p.m. MST on Dec. 1, he lost radar and cell tower contact.
“They said he wasn’t panicking,” Terri said.
But he was reporting icing and engine failure.
Still, the family had high hopes that the group would be OK as they headed for Cascade, Idaho, Monday, Dec. 2 after first dropping Craig and Nathan Smith off at the Boise airport. The boys returned to their home in San Jose where they were met by Dale’s mother, Fran Phillips, and Janis’ parents, so they could return to school.
Dale’s wife was especially optimistic that her family would survive, Steve said.
“Janis is a really strong, upbeat person. Just until recently she has had a very upbeat attitude. She is a remarkable woman.”
He says the same about his son.
“When he was growing up, I took him out and showed him how to survive — how to build a fire in a snowstorm,” he says.
Dale’s son, Daniel, and Dale’s future son-in-law, Jonathan, both were Eagle Scouts and had received survival training through Boy Scouting. And all three men had served LDS missions.
Dale didn’t make it through the ranks to become an Eagle Scout.
“He was an inventor,” his father says.
He finished high school early and had earned his associate’s degree before he began his mission at Marysville, Ohio.
When Dale returned from Ohio, he enrolled at Brigham Young University where he earned a degree in electronic engineering. He and his wife met in college and were married in 1984.
Looking back on the search, Steve admits he wasn’t as optimistic about the outcome as other family members were, even as new leads were developed.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3, a faint emergency locator transmitter signal was picked up. But nothing was found when searchers tracked it to where they were being directed. Another lead that was fruitless came from a miner who thought he’d heard a plane experiencing engine trouble overhead.
As a former Civil Air Patrol observer, Steve’s role during the search was to ride with pilots as they flew over the rugged Idaho country looking for the plane.
“Knowing my son, if he had any ability to move about, he would have built a fire and been sending up a signal,” he said.
And Terri remembers the bright pink skirt Amber was wearing when she left Baker City.
“She would have changed clothes and that pink skirt would have become a red flag,” she said.
And though he didn’t want to be the naysayer in the group, Steve says he had a feeling by about the second day that searchers would not find his family members alive.
“About Tuesday I didn’t feel their spirits anymore,” he said.
Still, without proof, he holds out hope.
“I would dearly love to be proved wrong,” he says.
Whatever happened, Steve says he believes Dale led the way for his children.
“I have a vision of my son helping the rest of them enter into God’s Kingdom,” he said.
At this point, with snow covering the area and sub-zero temperatures, the official search has ended. Authorities will continue to follow up on any new leads and pilots flying over the region will keep a lookout.
Next spring the family plans to head back to the area.
“We’ll take ATVs and camp there and continue the search, however long it takes,” Steve said. “If we can’t find them this spring,we’ll be back next spring. That’s our life’s mission from now on.”
The family has established this website to keep people informed as the scaled-back search continues: sites.google.com/site/searchfordalesplane/search-timeline.