By Alex Tizon | The Seattle Times
SEATTLE (AP) — A draft federal report appears to vindicate a man who says he was unfairly forced from his job as the state’s air search-and-rescue chief, according to newspaper reports.
At the request of four state senators, Lt Col Brian Holmes was reassigned from his post within the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division in February.
The move came after members of the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, accused him of botching a search that they contend cost a CAP pilot his life.
The pilot, Jim Powell, was in a Cessna 182 that crashed April 12, 1995, near Bumping Lake, east of Mount Rainier, while on a business flight from Auburn to Boise, Idaho.
The 29-year-old Kirkland man, who did not carry survival gear, survived the crash only to die of hypothermia.
The Civil Air Patrol contends Lt Col Holmes deliberately grounded CAP pilots during the first part of the search.
Patrol officials say Powell’s death could have been caused by the delay.
The results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash is due in a few weeks.
But a draft report obtained by The Seattle Times and the Valley Daily News of Kent corroborates much of Lt Col Holmes’ version of the four-day search and, in effect, vindicates him.
Lt Col Holmes, 52, has long maintained that he was the victim of a vendetta and that he ran the search operation as effectively as possible.
“If it hadn’t been for my family, I would have sucked the end of a gun, and that would have been the end of it,” Lt Col Holmes told Wednesday’s Times about his life since the crash. “But I am not guilty. The accusation is that I let Jim Powell die. Nothing can be further from the truth.”
The state Aviation Division, which is authorized by law to head air searches, and the Civil Air Patrol have had a long-running power struggle in Washington.
A CAP-Air Force investigation into the Powell rescue concluded that more could have been done and indicted Lt Col Holmes for causing Powell’s death, according to The Times and the Valley Daily News.
The report, by then Lt Col Douglas Isaacson, now a civilian employee of the Civil Air Patrol Inc., asserted that sheriff’s departments in Pierce, Yakima and King counties violated rules regarding items found at a crash site, and that they participated in a cover-up directed by Holmes.
The CAP report recommended an FBI investigation into their handling of evidence.
“At the very minimum,” Lt Col Isaacson concluded, “Holmes used his position of state authority to engage in negligence or wrongful death in not using all resources to save this federal resource. Powell should be alive today.”
Senator Brad Owen, who heads the Senate transportation committee, along with Senators Dan MacDonald, R-Bellevue, Bob Morton, R-Orient, and Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, demanded Lt Col Holmes’ resignation based on the Civil Air Patrol report, according to a March 31 account in the Valley Daily News.
The report has since been discredited by several local and federal officials.
Among its findings, the CAP contended the weather did not warrant the kind of restraint shown by Lt Col Holmes the first day of the search.
But according to the NTSB and Pierce and King County sheriff’s departments, weather conditions were extremely hazardous and Lt Col Holmes showed proper restraint.
The CAP said Lt Col Holmes did not launch any kind of meaningful search until 27 hours after Powell crashed.
But search logs from the counties and the Aviation Division show Lt Col Holmes dispatched three aircraft and activated 60 ground searchers in three counties the first day.
The CAP was allowed to participate after the first day. On the fourth day, a CAP pilot spotted Powell’s plane on a high, snow-covered ridge.
“This is a very poor accident investigation,” Floyd MacSpadden of Kent, who until two months ago was the CAP’s state director of operations and head of the Seattle squadron, said of the CAP-Air Force report.
“Lt Col Isaacson would appear to be a very good candidate to be a novelist rather than an accident investigator.”
Lt Tom Miner, search and rescue coordinator for the Pierce County sheriff’s department, said the CAP report was full of inaccuracies and misstatements.
“Jim Powell was going to die, no matter what we did. I don’t care what CAP says,” Lt Miner said. “Even if we had known where he was from the get-go, we couldn’t get to him. We couldn’t locate the plane.”
CAP legal counsel Thomas Handley, speaking from CAP headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, defended his agency’s conclusions. “Those reports are right,” he said.