CHARLEVOIX, Mich. -- As he directed the search for a missing plane on fog-shrouded Beaver Island, Deputy Sheriff Mike Russell wasn't optimistic about finding its crew or passengers alive.
But he pressed on, as did other residents of the Lake Michigan island 30 miles west of Charlevoix. They fanned out on foot, snowmobiles and four-wheel-drive vehicles, slogging through knee-deep, slushy snow, numbed by freezing rain.
"We knew it could have happened to any of our families," Russell said Tuesday. "We'd hope they would look for us as well as we looked for them."
The twin-engine Swearingen Merlin 227 AT Metroliner, which crashed Thursday, was found Friday morning in thick woods 2 miles from Beaver Island Airport.
The pilot, 51-year-old Curtis Logan of Little Falls, Minn., and co-pilot Steve Ehrhart, 23, of Elgin, Ill., were killed. But the passengers, Mirth Gault of Orland Park, Ill., and her three children, survived despite waiting 15 hours in bitter cold.
They had chartered a flight from Chicago to the island, about 300 miles north, where they have a vacation home.
"It's just unbelievable that anyone made it through alive," said Mike Green, 42, a lifelong island resident who joined the search. "We all felt like we'd seen a miracle ... but I really feel bad for the pilots' families."
Between 400 and 500 people live year-round on Beaver Island, a popular Midwestern summer tourist destination. It's a close-knit community, with neighbors quick to help each other in times of trouble, Green said.
Flying is the only way to get between island and mainland from late December through March, when ferryboat service halts.
The area can be especially treacherous for pilots, says Paul Welke, operations director for Island Airways, a charter flight service between the island and Charlevoix.
"There have been a lot of airplanes lost out there," Welke said in an interview Tuesday.
In July 1998, a flight instructor and a pilot disappeared after they left the Traverse City airport in a Cold War-era plane that was part of a holiday air show.
It's believed they crashed into northern Lake Michigan, but there's been no trace of the aircraft -- despite a 2,300 square mile-search of the lake from Frankfort to the Upper Peninsula.
"It's such a wilderness ... the lake is so unforgiving. There are no landmarks out there to help guide you. When the visibility starts to go down a little bit ... the gray water kind of blends in with the gray sky."
Gault's husband, Robert, was waiting at the airport and saw the plane fly over. He assumed it was headed to the mainland because it was too foggy to land on the island, Russell said.
Then came word from the air traffic center in Minneapolis that the crewmen had not been heard from since reporting their final approach to Beaver Island.
Russell and several others quickly looked around the airport but found nothing. As Coast Guard helicopters began searching over water, volunteers on the island patrolled the coast, hampered by darkness and fog. Others stayed with Robert Gault, who now feared his wife and children were dead.
They stopped around midnight and resumed at daybreak, this time with about 40 searchers. A command post was set up at the airport terminal. Residents and restaurants supplied chili, sandwiches and coffee.
Welke took off from his private airstrip with several companions and began combing the western end of the island. Around 10:30 a.m., he spotted the wreckage.
"Our immediate thought was that nobody would have survived this," he said. But he made another pass and stared in amazement as Mirth Gault, who had climbed onto the fuselage, waved a life preserver.
On the ground, Green and several other snowmobilers noticed Welke's plane circling a mile away and roared toward the spot. When the trees and underbrush got too thick, they leaped off their machines and continued on foot, reaching the wreckage as a Coast Guard helicopter was lifting the Gaults to safety.
"The mother and one of the children were still on the ground," Green said. "She was about frozen. I gave her some hand warmers, and another guy threw a coat over her until she could get in the basket."
Mirth Gault and her sons, Adam, 13, and Alec, 5, have been released from Chalevoix Area Hospital. Emma, 9, was listed in good condition with a broken pelvis. She was expected to be released later this week.
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