CHICKALOON, ALASKA – To hear Brett Winterbottom explain it, he was just in the right place, at the right time.
Winterbottom, a Monticello native, has spent the past seven summers in Alaska working for Mica Guides, a company that offers a wide range of tour options about 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska. At about 6:34 p.m. on May 28, Winterbottom was with several co-workers and a tour group from Grapevine Faith Christian School in Grapevine, Texas.
“I had never worked the zipline before,” said Winterbottom, now a resident of Glacier View, Alaska.
Between zips near the Matanuska River, Winterbottom and the tour group heard, and then spotted, a small plane.
“It was really low and I was concerned about him seeing the zipline,” he said.
Then, the plane disappeared behind the trees.
“I looked at my coworkers and I had to clarify that what I thought I had just seen, had actually happened,” he said.
“Did that plane just go down? Did that plane just crash?” he asked.
The answer was yes.
“Holy crap, that just happened,” he said.
A Piper PA-18 piloted by 27-year-old Logan Snyder of Wasilla, Alaska had crashed into the Matanuska River. On board were his wife, Nichole and seven-month-old baby.
Winterbottom asked those around him if anyone had medical experience. A nurse, Tammy Saunders, traveling with the Grapevine group said she was a nurse.
“You, with me,” Winterbottom said, and they traveled to the scene about 300 feet away on his ATV.
At the banks, Winterbottom tethered himself to his ATV and swam into the river and saved the adult male and seven-month-old child. Winterbottom passed the baby to Saunders who was able to immediately render aid.
Nichole Snyder was able to swim to shore on the opposite side of the river.
A helicopter transferred the female and the infant to the hospital, but all have been released.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my MICA Guides – Matanuska Glacier crew,” said Don Wray, owner of MICA Guides. “Our most senior people happened to have been working that night and immediately jumped into action. We train for emergencies and have systems in place, though we never expected to respond to a plane crash. Within minutes of the initial radio call, the crew back at base rolled out with emergency and river gear.”
Winterbottom said the family was traumatized and soaking wet, wearing just t-shirts and shorts in 35-degree water for at least 10 minutes. The plane was folded in half, flipped over and torn apart. But the family latched onto the tires as it floated down the rapids.
“They showed willpower and a desire to live that was incredible,” he said. “I have never seen anyone work so hard to survive.”
Snyder, holding his son, had jumped from the plane and began swimming against the current, holding the baby above the water with one hand, Winterbottom said. He reached a shallow spot to meet Winterbottom.
Then, after handing the baby off, Winterbottom and Snyder linked arms and walked to the shore.
“He was about ready to pass out. That man kept his son above water and that was not easy in those kinds of rapids.”
Winterbottom said his company provides some rescue training, but not for an incident like this.
“We have a course on hypothermia and very brief water rescue tips,” he said. “I had done some personal research, but honestly, I kind of made my decisions on the fly.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, but in a preliminary interview, Logan Snyder told investigators he experienced a loss of control of the plane, and it eventually landed in the river.
Winterbottom’s story appeared in news reports and that’s where his family and friends in Monticello heard about it.
“I was going to tell them a couple of days later, but they found out and my Mom was so excited,” he said.
A 2010 graduate of Monticello High School, Winterbottom fell in love with rock climbing and moved to Colorado after two years of college. He still keeps in touch with several in Monticello. He will return later this summer to marry his fiancé, Kelsey, who is from Rhode Island.
“I love the Monticello school system and the community,” he said. “It was a wonderful place to grow up. Every now and then, I will get in touch with some of my old high school teachers and some buddies and friends from school. Monticello is always in my heart.”