Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ted Stevens Dies in Plane Crash

A couple of years ago, I wrote a lot about former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens — his unsuccessful fight against ethics charges, his last election campaign and the protracted ballot counting in Alaska that left the outcome up in the air for a couple of weeks.

Stevens, of course, lost the 2008 election by nearly 4,000 votes and returned to Alaska, presumably to live out his days in retirement after serving in the Senate longer than any other Republican. And I haven't written about him since.

Even though he was 85 years old on the day Alaska finished counting its ballots, most people probably assumed his retirement would be a long one. He was elderly, but he was in good health and, the reasoning continued, there was no reason why anyone should think he would not be around for awhile.

But it was not to be.

He died during the night in a plane crash in his home state. As I write this, details are trickling in. At the moment, it appears that nine people were on board the plane and five, including Stevens, were killed. Former NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe also was on board the plane, but there has been no word yet about his fate.

In the wild and untamed regions of Alaska, about the only way to travel from one place to another, even in those few months of each year when snow is not on the ground, is by air. That's a fact of life. There are people in Alaska who make their living running air taxi services, and anyone who ever watched the TV series Northern Exposure in the 1990s knows how crucial air travel was in those days — and still is — for postal carriers.

And it's another fact of life that plane crashes happen in Alaska. I'm not talking about the huge jets that cross the globe routinely every day. I'm talking about small, private planes, and they go down for all sorts of reasons.

It is said that Stevens' plane was brought down by bad weather. Sometimes, I guess, the vast Alaskan horizon can play tricks on even the most experienced pilot. And not all the pilots who try to travel through portions of the state, much of it still frontier, are as experienced as they should be.

Alaskan plane crashes don't always take the lives of prominent people, but sometimes they do. Stevens and his first wife were in a plane crash in 1978. Stevens' wife was killed; he was injured. Six years earlier, Rep. Nick Begich, the father of the man who unseated Stevens in 2008, was killed along with House colleague Hale Boggs, who served on the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

And, in what may have been the most notorious Alaskan plane crash, humorist Will Rogers was killed 75 years ago this Sunday.

Alaska is a rugged land. It took rugged people to settle it, but no one, no matter how rugged, can conquer it.

A plane ride in Alaska has never been routine, even if a skilled pilot could make it seem so. Stevens represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 40 years. In all those elections, he must have known the risks involved in statewide travel.

That is probably little comfort to Stevens' family on this day.

But that's the way it is.

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