OGDEN — The first few days after an airplane carrying five people from Oregon to Montana went missing were among the worst.
David Norton's grandson, Jonathan, was on board the small plane that fell off the grid on Dec. 1 near Yellow Pine, Idaho. The families of the five people on board grasped that that the aircraft had likely crashed, but Norton said there was one pervasive, plaguing question: Had anyone survived?
"It just ate at everyone," the Ogden man said.
The search went on for weeks until Friday, when the wreckage was finally found.
There were no survivors, but Norton said there was an answer to their question. It appeared those on board had died on impact.
"The big thing that most were still struggling (with was), 'Was it quick?' Finding the plane and recognizing that it was quick has brought them peace — a confirmation of what we had hoped would be the case," Norton said.
The single-engine plane was occupied by pilot, Dale Smith, 51, a software executive from San Jose, Calif.; his son, Daniel Smith and his wife, Sheree Smith; and daughter Amber Smith with her fiance, Jonathon Norton.
Jonathon Norton and Amber Smith were both accounting majors set to graduate next year from BYU-Idaho. They were scheduled to be married Jan. 4.
The group was traveling from Baker City, Ore., where the family had been spending the Thanksgiving holiday, to Butte, Mont., where Daniel and Sheree Smith live, when it disappeared in the mountains 150 miles northeast of Boise.
Dale Smith had reported to a Salt Lake City tower that he was having engine trouble and needed directions to the Johnson Creek landing strip. David Norton said the crash site was "very close" to the landing strip.
"It was within close distance of where they were searching, and yet all those flyovers were not the right angle or not the right eyes to see the needle in the haystack," he said.
Search and rescue teams and members of the Valley County Sheriff's Office had taken part in the search, but they suspended their operations due to weather. Family and friends continued on.
Dale Smith's brother, Dellon, was especially committed.
"He was determined to find his brother," Norton said. "He was a pilot, he knew the odds, but he just wanted closure."
Ultimately, it was a website, Tomnod, that led to the discovery of the crash site. Norton said the website provides satellite images that were scoured by volunteers.
"There were literally thousands that would get on … and spend hours searching," he said. "There's been tens of thousands of hours in the search."
Friday was the last planned day of the search. On Thursday, someone on the site thought they could see the plane, a finding that was confirmed by others on the site and led to the discovery of the crash site Friday.
Dale Smith's wife, Janis, said Dellon Smith was one of the private searchers who located the wreckage. She said he told her the plane was broken and buried in the snow. He told her it was obvious from the crash site that those aboard died quickly.
"It's a real sense of closure to know exactly what happened and to know that they didn't suffer at all," she said Friday.
Janis Smith said it appears the plane crashed moments after the last communication and that the plane had caught fire.
According to Federal Aviation Administration records, Smith, an executive and co-founder of San Jose-based SerialTek, obtained his pilot's license in 2005.
David Norton said law enforcement had told the families that they would take care of the recovery when the plane was found, but they don't know when that might take place.
"It would be nice if they were able to do some exploring and recovery, but you have to take into account the dangers associated with it for the others," David Norton said.
Valley County Sheriff Patti Bolen said bad weather forced a recovery team to turn around Saturday. She reported that the site is covered in approximately three feet of snow and that snowmobiles have to be used to reach the area.
Bolen said officials would meet Monday to discuss their options in reaching the site and recovering the bodies. It's possible a helicopter may be used to reach the crash site.
Contributing: Associated Press
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