A local attorney was the sole survivor of a plane crash near Mammoth Lakes Airport over the weekend that left two others dead.
Bill Hansult, a lawyer who often represents the Libertarian Party of Santa Barbara County, was a passenger in the four-seat Piper Cherokee piloted by a friend, Joseph Terrell “Terre” Owens of Arroyo Grande. The plane had a mechanical failure 10 minutes after takeoff and crashed upside down in a snowbank near the airport. Mr. Owens was 59. Also killed was Carol Maki, 51, of San Luis Obispo.
The three were returning to San Luis Obispo County from a ski trip in Mammoth.
Speaking Wednesday from his hospital bed at Washoe Medical Center in Reno, Nev., a battered and emotionally drained Mr. Hansult recounted the wreck and reflected on his luck.
“Everyone’s saying it was a miracle,” said the 51-year-old Grover Beach resident.
Mr. Hansult suffered multiple broken bones in his left arm and back — three of them compound fractures — as well as several bruises. He bled so badly from a cut on his head that he received a transfusion. Mr. Hansult said he is scheduled to undergo surgery on his shoulder today.
The group of friends was 600 feet in the air when the plane sputtered, lurched right and plunged, he said.
“I saw the ground rushing toward us,” he said. “Terre tried to correct the problem. The next thing I know I’m saying, ‘Oh my God, Terre.’ ”
When he came to, the 6-foot, 215-pound Mr. Hansult was trapped in a mangled mess. “I was like a sardine in a broken sardine can,” he said. With its white underbelly, the plane was not easy to spot.
“I was in a T-shirt and jeans,” said Mr. Hansult, a native of Long Island, N.Y. “I figured I was going to die in the elements. All of a sudden, a miracle happened. I faintly heard some voices in the background. Luck had it these two women were cross-country skiing in the outback.” One had a cell phone and called 911. Rescue workers arrived the only way possible, via snowmobile. They used the Jaws of Life to save Mr. Hansult.
He said Mr. Owens typically asks passengers to take turns sitting in the front seat — one each way. When they left for Mammoth on Thursday, Ms. Maki took the front. Just before the return trip, Mr. Hansult asked if he could sit in the back again because he wanted to take a nap, a move that likely saved his life.
Mr. Hansult said he’s been having trouble sleeping since the crash.
“As soon as I’m close, I start getting flashbacks,” he said. “When I came to in the plane, my head was resting against Terre, who was dead.”
He said he’d known Mr. Owens, an accountant, for about a year, but hadn’t really known Ms. Maki. She was a nurse who’d worked for many years at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. All three were members of the SLO Skiers club, which had scheduled the four-day getaway.
The cause of the crash is being investigated by officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board, but Mr. Hansult said Mr. Owens was a responsible pilot.
Mr. Hansult, who is currently representing the Libertarian Party in a Brown Act suit against the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District, said he does not know when he can return to work.
“It depends on what I can do,” he said. “My left arm I can’t even move. I can’t even stand up and walk.”