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Fossett's widow thanks hiker

His discovery of pilot's ID leads authorities to the wreckage of the adventurer's plane a year after it crashed.

October 03, 2008|Jia-Rui Chong and Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writers

MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIF. — After an exhaustive search by the Civil Air Patrol, sophisticated analysis of satellite images and a year of uncertainty, it finally came down to this: A lone hiker and his dog.

On Thursday, 43-year-old Preston Morrow was weary. He had done more than 30 interviews with reporters from around the world, all eager to know how he stumbled on the clues that led searchers to the wreckage of adventurer Steve Fossett's single-engine plane as well as a bone fragment that might be human.

At the cozy A-frame that houses Kittredge Sports, the tall, blond salesman-manager admitted he was a little flummoxed by all the attention. His dog -- an Australian shepherd mix named Kona -- sat at his feet, taking it all in stride.

"This is beyond the realm of anything imaginable," Morrow said. "I personally don't like it, but I will say I'm happy I found what I found."

What he found Monday in Red's Meadow, a tough alpine landscape at an elevation of about 9,700 feet, were three identification cards peeking out of a blanket of pine needles. Along with them were 10 $100 bills and a $5 bill, all bleached pale green by the sun.

The documents, which included a pilot's license from the Federal Aviation Administration, belonged to Fossett, the daring 63-year-old tycoon who vanished on a solo pleasure flight from a Nevada ranch in September 2007.

Morrow was singled out for praise Thursday by Fossett's widow, Peggy, who expressed hope that the discovery would allow her to "bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life."

In a statement, she said: "I especially want to thank Preston Morrow, who made this discovery and turned over Steve's belongings to the authorities. I am anxious to learn of the circumstances and cause of this tragic accident from the official report of the NTSB."

The day began with an announcement by Madera County Sheriff John Anderson that the wreckage had been found by aerial crews late Wednesday night about a quarter of a mile from the spot where Morrow found the ID cards.

"The crash looked to be so severe that I doubt someone would have walked away from it," Anderson said.

Later Wednesday, Anderson said a piece of bone had been found, taken to the Madera County coroner and forwarded to a California Department of Justice lab for analysis. Whether it was human or animal was unclear, he said.

However, a federal official tersely disclosed that some apparent remains had been found by searchers amid the fragments of the crashed Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon.

Asked about remains by reporters at a Mammoth Lakes news conference, Mark V. Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said there was "very little."

He declined to elaborate but raised the possibility of DNA analysis, saying he believed a coroner "will be able to do some work."

The Civil Air Patrol, a civilian volunteer group organized by the U.S. Air Force, flew over the area 19 times during the initial search last year but did so in fixed-wing aircraft flying 1,000 feet above ground. The wreckage was sighted by helicopters flying as low as 200 feet from the ground.

Fossett, a securities billionaire who set 116 records in airplanes, balloons, gliders and sailboats, was legendary for his daring. Friends, including Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, have said he was no daredevil, preferring calculated risks to showboat stunts.

Sitting Thursday before racks of hiking boots and rugged trail running shoes, Morrow noted with some surprise that Branson had telephoned him an hour earlier.

"He said he wanted to thank me personally," he said.

A reflective man, Morrow grew up in Chatsworth and has lived in Mammoth Lakes for 16 years. He was drawn to the ski town of 7,000 by the chance to appreciate the outdoors and the mountain stillness. His wife, Natalie, is a firefighter.

Morrow said he was far off-trail Monday when he found the cash and ID cards. He had hiked from Devil's Postpile down the Minaret Lake Trail while exploring the area with his dog.

"If this was a regular trail, this stuff would have been found a long, long time ago, because that trail is used all summer long," he said.

Morrow said he initially did not link the cards to the missing adventurer.

"I thought a bear stole it from a backpack," he said. But the next morning it clicked, and he went out to the site with some friends, his wife and a videographer to document what he had found and get accurate GPS coordinates to give to authorities, he said. The videographer happened to be in town shooting for a company that does documentary work for the Discovery Channel, among others.

Morrow turned over the cash and the cards to local police Wednesday morning.

Since then, media have flooded in and asked the same questions nonstop: How did you feel when you found the cards? How do you feel now? Are you hoping for a reward? (The answer to the last, he said again, was no.)

He said he's planning to take a vacation starting today but declined to say where he would head. Still wearing a microphone from a previous interview, he spotted a couple looking at shoes and seized the opportunity to politely end yet another interview.

"Do you folks want to see some shoes?" he asked.

--

jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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