Debris recovered but aircraft still not found

Searchers continue to scour Lake Marvine

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— Gary Coulter was the last person to see four Reno, Nev., men who were traveling on a small plane that is believed to have crashed into Lake Marvine in the White River National Forest last week.

Coulter for the past 41 years has been managing the airport in Meeker, which is where a Piper Cherokee PA-28 flown by Richard "Dan" Filippe stopped to refuel May 29.

"He was in a hurry," Coulter said Wednesday afternoon as authorities continued a search for the plane 30 miles east of the airport. "He jumped out of the plane and told me he was kind of in a hurry because he had box tickets to a hockey game."

Coulter pumped 19.6 gallons of fuel into the blue and white plane and noticed one of the men in the plane talking on a cellular phone.

"The pilot asked me how long it would take to get to Denver, and I told him," said Coulter, as he sat behind his desk at the airport and puffed on a cigarette. "He then paid for the fuel, and I went back to work."

Coulter did not think again of the meeting he had with Filippe, Ross Jones and brothers Jon and Mark Peters until he received a telephone call later that night from a family member of one of the men.

It was then he found out the men who were on their way to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals in Denver were missing.

The men and the plane continue to remain missing as officials from the Rio Blanco Sheriff's Office, National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. Forest Service, Army National Guard and Federal Aviation Administration continue to scour a remote lake in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

On Wednesday, Rio Blanco County Sheriff Phil Stubblefield had three of his deputies searching the upper portion of Marvine Lake for the aircraft and the men using an underwater camera.

"We have not been able to locate the aircraft or the men," Stubblefield said.

A monitor in a boat is being used to track what the camera is picking up in the water on the eastern section of the lake.

"We are going to concentrate in that area for the next couple of days," he said.

Stubblefield is having his deputies focus on about 20 acres of the lake where a small satchel filled with some clothing, a headset and a part of a wheel fender to a plane were found.

"The T-shirts found in the bag have hockey insignias on them," Stubblefield said.

"The wheel well belongs to a Piper, but it does not have any identifying markers or numbers that belong to the aircraft we are looking for."

Authorities have been unable to confirm the items found in the lake belong to the missing plane or the men, he said.

A National Guard helicopter out of Eagle is also being used to search the area around the lake.

"So far, we have not seen anything that indicates it went through the trees," he said.

Divers from Rangely Search and Rescue were used in Tuesday's effort, but not Wednesday.

"The water is murky and has a lot of moss at different levels," Stubblefield said. "Because of the altitude, it was too difficult for the divers to go too deep, and they could not see a whole lot."

The location of the lake has made it tough for authorities. The lake is at an elevation of about 9,300 feet and is about a four-hour horseback ride from the nearest road.

"It is extremely steep and rugged terrain," said Bill Hahnenberg, a U.S. Forest Service district ranger. "It is a difficult access opportunity for rescue personnel."

Norm Wiemeyer, who is the NTSB's chief officer out of Denver, has made the trip to Meeker.

Authorities have been unable to locate an emergency locator transmission from the plane. However, they would not be able to pick up an ELT signal if the device was under water, Wiemeyer said.

An ELT "won't operate under water," he said.

Filippe, who authorities believe has between 600 and 800 hours of flying experience, did not file a flight pattern.

He was using visual flight regulations.

Authorities have set up a camp at the lake as the search continues. The helicopter is being used to shuttle equipment and manpower in and out of the area.

Stubblefield is hopeful a third boat will be available as the search resumes today at daybreak.

Authorities converged on the lake Tuesday after a fisherman reported Monday night of finding debris in the lake believed to be from the missing plane.

The Colorado Civil Air Patrol ended a six-day search of the men Tuesday morning when it was notified of the fisherman's discovery.

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