Lieutenant Colonel, United States Air Force
a press report of September 30, 1998
Every summer for nine years, members of the Stevens family took an overnight hike along the peaks and rock-strewn gullies about a mile west of the Alpental Ski Area. Ignoring the glorious views, they kept their eyes to the ground, searching for a bone or a shred of clothing.
What they really hoped to find was closure.
Early Monday evening, two King County medical examiner employees knocked on Marilynn Stevens' door and brought her the answers she had waited so long to hear. Two hikers had come across a skull and jawbone near the Denny Creek trail Sunday. A satchel near the remains contained a checkbook bearing the name of her husband, James Stevens, whose small plane crashed near Snoqualmie Pass on November 8, 1989.
The news brought tears and a flood of terrible memories, but also a profound sense of relief, said Marilynn. At last, the family could lay her husband to rest.
In the coming days, James Stevens' friends and family will hike back to the crash site for a final memorial.
Rescue workers and investigators who found Stevens' plane eight years ago say they guessed what happened to the Bellevue pilot after he crashed, but the remains solve for certain a nagging mystery.
Stevens, 51, a decorated Air Force pilot who served three tours in Vietnam, climbed into a Cessna 172M and took off from the Renton airport on a gray November morning. As a member of the Evergreen Flying Club, he frequently rented small planes to indulge his lifelong love of flying.
Owner of his own company, Stevens Engineering, with a special expertise in energy codes, he also traveled the state to provide training. On this day, he planned to give a presentation in Moses Lake.
Coming over Snoqualmie Pass at around 8,000 feet, the plane's wings began to ice over. Stevens told air traffic controllers he was going to turn around. But his plane disappeared from radar screens.
The plane clipped the treetops near Low Mountain and flipped over, according to investigators. From where he crashed, Stevens might have been able to see the headlights of traffic passing along Interstate 90, about a mile away.
Given the damage to the cockpit, investigators surmise that Stevens suffered considerable head injuries. Nonetheless, he put his briefcases in a neat row, switched off the ignition and took the keys. He also put a cardboard distress sign on a rocky ledge.
About 15 inches of snow fell that day. That made the upside down, white-bottomed plane invisible from the air.
Investigators say Stevens ripped carpet from the plane to make a seat and likely waited for rescuers. But at some point, he picked up his Thermos and began to trek through the woods. He got about one-half to three-quarters of a mile, in steep terrain that one searcher described as "Western Washington jungle."
More than 80 people looked for Stevens over a 200-square-mile area, but they didn't have much to go on. The plane's emergency-locator transmitter wasn't functioning; investigators later said it had been improperly installed. Without that electronic beacon, rescuers searched the snow-covered mountains with little more than grit and guesswork.
"If the emergency-locator transmitter had been working, we could have found him that afternoon," said Brian Holmes, chief pilot with the state Department of Transportation's aviation division.
Instead, the search was called off after five days. The plane was spotted by a helicopter on July 12, 1990. It would be eight more years before the family knew for certain what happened to the pilot.
In the meantime, Marilynn crusaded to increase awareness about the importance of emergency-locator transmitters and the need for ground crews to notify pilots of potential equipment problems.
She has also spoken to King County Search and Rescue teams on how to talk to families in the midst of a crisis, and developed a friendship with many of the investigators who tried to find her husband.
"We try to never get close to the family, but this time, we did," said Holmes. "You see how close knit they are, how supporting. This brings a lot of closure."
Every summer, Stevens' oldest son, James - occasionally joined by his brother and sister - hiked the mountainside looking for clues. At night, around the campfire, they would offer a toast to their father.
"They had to do it; they needed to find him," said Marilynn.
A cross will be erected for Stevens in Arlington National Cemetery. But his body will forever be a part of the rugged mountains that he loved to hike and explore.
And that, said Marilynn, is how it should be.
Posted: 19 February 2000