Gordon Penix spent a lifetime saving others. Today the 68-year-oId retired Coast Guard Master Chief from Seattle is lying in a Vancouver hospital bed and praising the search-and-rescue "heroes" from Comox who plucked him from certain death Friday after the plane in which he was a passenger crashed into a glacier. "If it hadn't been for those guys I'd have been dead," Penix said yesterday from Vancouver Hospital's spinal-cord intensive-care unit. "Those guys were heroes -every one of them - who came and got us," he said. "I think these search-and-rescue guys need a pat on their back for what they did." Penix was flying with his good friend, retired U.S. Federal Aviation Administration officer and Coast Guard reservist Leonard Westbo, 65, in Westbo's Piper Comanche.
Along for the outing - a regular fishing trip to Powell River-were Westbo's relatives, George and Mildred Thomas, 79 and 83. Following in another plane was Penix's friend David Soderland, a Seattle attorney.
Penix said that as Westbo was flying up a valley toward a glacial bowl in Toba Inlet "he saw that something up there wasn't right" - the heavily loaded aircraft wasn't going to be able to climb quickly enough to clear the looming ridge. Westbo made a hard turn to the left over the bowl to circle back for another approach.
Search-and-rescue officials said yesterday that Westbo turned so sharply he stalled his plane and it fell from the sky on to the glacier and broke apart.
Penix said something may have gone wrong with the engine.
"The engine started to splutter," he said. "It was making some real weird noises, and then we ploughed in. He made the right decision to turn back - he's one of the best pilots in the U.S." I'm afraid people are going to blame him, and it isn't true."
Master Cpl. Lance Teichrib, the first SAR technician to arrive at the crash site in a Labrador helicopter from 442 Squadron in Comox, said he was expecting to find bodies after hearing the description of the crash given to searchers by Soderland.
"We heard their ages, that they had crashed up in the mountains and our hopes were pretty bleak," said Teichrib. "We did not think they'd make it."
When the Labrador finally located the downed aircraft, 5,200 feet up in the mountains, Westbo was standing on the wing waving Penix's red jacket.
"Boom! It kind of blew us away that they were in such good shape," said Teichrib.
The SAR tech of 2 1/2 years said he was particularly amazed to see Mildred Thomas sitting unruffled and nearly uninjured in the back seat of the plane.
"It was fairly humorous to see this little old lady sitting there, holding her purse," he said.
Penix, who had been thrown from the plane, was the most seriously injured. He remained paralysed in his legs yesterday from a back injury.
Teichrib and his partner, Warrant Officer John Carriiere, began giving medical attention and carrying the injured to the waiting Labrador.
But the 35-year old helicopter was slowly running out of fuel as the pilot kept the engines on out of fear they might not start again at the high altitude.
To speed up the rescue and ensure the Lab didn't run out of gas, the decision was made that Master Cpls. Jeff Warden and Ron Rea, two SAR techs in a Buffalo aircraft circling above the crash site, would parachute in to help "They all weighed over 200 pounds," pounds," Teichrib said of the injured. "Getting them through the slushy snow down to the helicopter, it was hell."
"They are four of the luckiest people I met last week."
Said Penix of his rescuers:
"They did a great job. I absolutely can't praise them enough." 'If it hadn't been for those guys, I'd have been dead. Those guys were heroes -every one of them who came and got us'