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Special Report: Steve Fossett
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Steve Fossett Special Report: The Vanishing
What went wrong in the record-setting search for Steve Fossett? 
Text and photograph by James Vlahos  

Photo: Nevada desert

The town of Hawthorne (the green patch right of center) and Walker Lake dot the distance between the Wassuk (left) and Gillis Ranges (right).

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<< Back   |   Page 2 of 5  |   Next >>

A Khaki Abyss
The renewed ground search began on Saturday morning. Glenn Bunch, president of Mineral County Search and Rescue, stood in the desert 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Hawthorne and briefed two dozen women and men—myself included—in neon rescue garb. Most were middle-aged and heavyset; there was a beefy man who looked like a retired professional wrestler and a woman who faintly resembled Dog the Bounty Hunter. Four-wheel-drive trucks and all-terrain vehicles encircled Bunch like besieged Conestoga wagons on the frontier. He gestured at maps taped to the side of his Ford F-350. Fossett's plane had held enough fuel for about four hours of flight, translating to a search zone of some 20,000 square miles (51,800 square kilometers), an area larger than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. Our search was concentrated in and around Powell, Johnston, and Jim Canyons, three parallel gashes in the Wassuk Range. "Let's go find him, guys," Bunch said.

I was paired with Harold Dimmick, who wore a plaid shirt over dusty jeans and had a chest-length white beard of the sort favored by gold miners circa 1849. He was quiet as we ascended a mountainside on a dirt road, perhaps because my seat in his Jeep had been freed up only after he agreed to abandon his best friends, his dogs Rosie and Wendy.

Nevada, especially as seen from I-80, can seem like a giant, khaki abyss. The population density is low—outside of the counties that contain Reno and Las Vegas, there are only three people per square mile (three square kilometer)—but the topography is hardly uniform. Nevada has 300 named mountain ranges, more than any other state. Much of the ground is treeless and can be scanned reasonably from a plane or 4x4. But the dips and swells are deceptive. At one point I wandered off and dropped into a wash that I hadn't even noticed from the car. I had traveled only 30 yards (27 meters), but when I turned around, the Jeep had vanished from view. The summits around us climbed to 11,000 feet (3,353 meters); juniper and piñon pine cloaked the upper slopes and valleys. It was obvious why finding Fossett was so hard. In many places you'd practically have to kick the downed plane before you discovered it.

Dimmick stopped frequently and scanned the surroundings with binoculars. Around midday he steered the Jeep onto a rutted track that showed only the faintest signs of use, and after a while we got out to hike toward a ridgeline. To my right a hundred yards (91 meters) away, I spotted a promising metallic glint. When I got closer, I cursed: The reflection came from two balloons, the foil kind, that had drifted off from some faraway birthday party.

Nobody else was any luckier that day, nor on Sunday. "I really thought that these coordinates were good," Derks said later. "Obviously I was wrong." At the end of the afternoon, as the sun tinted the peaks purple, searchers gathered by Bunch's truck. "Let's face it," Dimmick said. "Because this guy is rich and famous, this search has gone on way longer than it would have for anybody else."

Bunch said that some areas had been checked up to six times. Mark Marshall, Fossett's staff pilot, had called a couple of days earlier and offered to pay team expenses. "He told me, 'Don't stop searching because you don't have enough money.' Well, it's not lack of money that's stopping us. We have run out of places to search."

Continue Reading:
Page 1: The Vanishing >>

Page 2: A Khaki Abyss >>

Page 3: White Noise >>

Page 4: A Final Flight >>

Page 5: Too Few Boots >>


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