On December 1, 2013, software executive and pilot Dale Smith took off with his son, Daniel, Daniel’s wife Sheree, his daughter, Amber, and her fiance, Jonathan. He was flying the group home from Thanksgiving celebrations when disaster struck. After reporting engine troubles, he was directed to land at a remote Idaho airstrip. The plane never arrived.
The official search for the missing aircraft was called off after 12 days. What no one could have predicted was the monumental search that miraculously continued after authorities left the frightful Idaho terrain. Almost 2,000 volunteers on Facebook, most who had never met the family, were led by seventeen year old Susannah Goldberg to spent hundreds of hours pouring over satellite images looking for signs of wreckage or distress. Dellon Smith, Dale’s brother, led a team of thirteen volunteers, to continue the search through waist-deep snow. SAR professionals, who discovered the Facebook group, travelled with Sno-Cat machines to help.
In the last few hours of the last day of the unofficial search, January 10, 2014, Dellon found the plane and the remains of his family.
As one of the 2,000 satellite searchers, who spent my lunch break for weeks looking at TOMNOD satellite images, the heroic effort of the Smith family left an indelible mark on my consciousness. When Frances Smith-Phillips, Dale’s mother, began gathering accounts of the searchers to compile in a book, I reached out to find a way we could honor Dale, Amber, Jonathan, Daniel, and Sheree on the anniversary of the search’s conclusion.
Below is her story from January 10 and why, even a year later, miracles are occurring as she invites others to “find spiritual meaning in the wake of tragedy.”
One year ago today, I stood alone in a room in a lodge loaned to us by a stranger I’d never met. As I stood there, a warm feeling penetrated my body, starting at my feet and moving up until it consumed my body. Then the distinct words came into my head:
“This experience is a gift from God.”
I instantly knew what the gift was because I’d felt the tender mercies and the warmth of prayers for the last 41 days. Yet, I rebelled and said out loud, “Lord, I don’t want this gift. I just want my family back!” The rebellion lasted only seconds before a sense of peace settled in.
My 38 year old son, Dellon Smith, and I had been awakened at 3:00 AM by a stranger we’d met only five days before.
“Fran, we think we’ve found it! We think that Image 57 sent by the TOMNOD group is the plane.” We were joined by another man whom we’d only met two days before. The four of us crowded around a laptop. The fact that we had internet with which to see Image 57 was a miracle in itself. Just the day before another stranger braved the treacherous road to where we were and upon seeing that we lacked any form of communication, pulled out a mifi (mobile wifi) that he was able to make work.
As my son woke up the other six men, I scrambled eggs. Meeting for prayer around a Tucker Sno Cat shortly after 4 AM, the men began their eight hour journey to the GPS coordinates. This would prove to be the longest day of my life and yet there was that same feeling in the room that we’d experienced for the past two and a half days. It was like a presence of something we couldn’t see. It’s hard to describe! At Christmas, Dellon described it like theair was thick, very thick. In my book I described it as “tangible faith” for lack of better words. Since then, it has been revealed to me that we were experiencing the “Ministering of Angels.”
Hugh Dougher, a volunteer SAR professional, stayed behind to write reports. About 12:30 PM, he came to tell me that he had the very broken message via a cantankerous satellite phone that the GPS coordinates of Image 57 were not the plane. I mused that I wasn’t devastated by the news even though a big storm was forecast. We knew that this would be the last day of searching for perhaps as many as six months. I can’t explain the peace I felt except that I was somehow protected from the awful realization of my circumstances. That which I could not bear was born for me.
Within the hour, Susannah Goldberg, the seventeen year old seminary student of my son’s who set up the website where all of the searchers communicated, emailed me to say that they’d heard that the plane hadn’t been found. Volunteers who wanted to participate in a future search were asking when the next search was going to be. I responded that I didn’t know. “It depends upon when the snow is melted enough that we can get back in here again—besides, today isn’t over.”
The rest of the story is history and, you know, it’s hard to write a story where everyone knows the end before you start. Plane crashes aren’t unusual. Everyone who flies knows or is related to someone who died in a plane crash. Adversity is also not unusual. Everyone my age has experienced some very traumatic life-changing event of the same magnitude to them as losing five members of my family was to me.
So why did I decide to write the book, “The Search for Dale’s Plane – Finding Spiritual Meaning in the Wake of Tragedy”?
First, Dale’s wife, Janis and his oldest daughter, Crystal, asked me to write the story as a historic record for the family. Then other men from Dale’s ward expressed that they wanted his two surviving sons to know about their father and how much service he rendered to others. I had postponed my mission for two months until after my family was found, but during the first five minutes of the first day of my mission orientation, the message was delivered that if there are not stories and memories about a person, that person will become just a name on a pedigree chart within one to two generations. All of that was enough to motivate me to write the story as a family history.
Secondly, this is a story that made a lot of heroes. 1,955 men and women spent an average of 91 hours each examining satellite images on their computers. Family members from 7 states put boots to the ground in Yellow Pine physically searching for the plane. Two wards and a branch of the church mobilized members of their congregations to help find my family along with strangers who just showed up. Two SAR professionals donated their time and energies to help us as well as a fleet of volunteer pilots with GoPro cameras. I wanted more than anything for this army of volunteers to see how they fit into the big picture of the search and to feel how significant their contributions were and how much they meant to us. We are grateful beyond words.
Thirdly, this is a story of miracles, faith and hope, and I hope my readers are inspired. It is my deepest desire for those who have suffered great adversity to feel that there are others who know their sorrow.
And so, I began to write and an unexpected door opened. Others began sending me their uplifting stories and testimonies about their efforts in behalf of my family. They shared their visions and the changes in their hearts. They shared their fears and their fears conquered. They shared how they drew closer to God . . . and I was no longer the author of the book, they were. For me to become the compiler of their stories is just another of the many gifts I received from a loving Heavenly Father. I was lifted by these stories and warmed by a remembrance of their generosity and love. Each day I felt both grief and gratitude but the magnitude of the gratitude was my shelter and protection.
The conclusion of this story is a gift to all of us from those ground searchers who gathered around the Tucker Snow Cat on January 10th a year ago. It is a gift of not only finding the plane, but the added gift that several of them wrote to me, telling about it – Scott Peterson, a medical doctor with a family practice in Orem, UT; Tony Bench, a wounded veteran of the Iraq War; Jordan Ray, who along with his wife Melissa, were physical therapy students from Pocatello, Idaho; Ron Lundquist, a member of the community who knows everyone and knows how to get things done; and Sam Jensen, an EMT from the Boise area. Below is an excerpt from Sam Jensen’s story and one of many in the book:
After just a few more minutes of water and food, and fire, I voiced my opinion. As Dellon had said, we are all the way up here. “Can we give it one last push?” Dellon looked at the group and looked for consensus. Someone said, “lets decide right now when we are turning back.”
It’s now 1:40. We need to begin the hike out no later than 2:30. The group agreed, lets go. Packs on, direction suggested by Arthur, Tony added that we should work in groups of two to take turns breaking trail, I said fantastic idea. We were tired, really tired, and not just physically.
We headed out from the fire in groups of two with Tony and Josh on my left, Scott and I together in the middle, and Dellon and Arthur on my right. We were lined out in our grid, and maybee 100 paces from the fire and the radio lit up, “hold your positions, we have something to look at” came from Arthur and Dellon. 3-4 minutes later the radio they updated with “we found it.”
I started crying and tried to embrace Scott, time stopped, the wind stopped, and every bone in my body wanted to be there for Dellon, but also to hold our position and respect the sacred space. A few minutes later, Dellon calmly invited us down to be a part of his experience. And so we went, fast, and Jim and Kyle had made it back shortly thereafter.
Fran, at this point, I will not discuss or disclose anything from the site. Dellon and Arthur were a part of everything I experienced, and was involved in. I have nothing to withhold from you. I can say that it was so supremely powerful, that I am forever grateful to have been a part of the search.
Read all of Sam’s story here: Sam Jensen’s Story
As the book, “The Search for Dale’s Plane – Finding Spiritual Strength in the Wake of Tragedy” goes to market, my sincere hope is that its readers will feel what we felt and learn what we learned about our relationship with a loving Heavenly Father who knows us as individuals and knows our needs. I also hope each reader will feel the love the Savior has for us as individuals and that they can know, as I do, that He is there for us no matter what the circumstances. I have felt the healing effects of the Atonement and I’m not sure that I could have acquired this knowledge in any other way.
– Sister Fran Smith-Phillips
Frances Smith-Phillips is the mother of the pilot, Dale Smith, and the grandmother of the other four passengers−either by birth, marriage, or the strong emotional bond of this experience. She says, “These were all my kids, all five of them!”
For months she felt like she was having an out of body experience, protected from the reality of the loss of her family, carried as in the poem, Footprints. Her heart was warmed by an outpouring of letters and stories from heroes who put their lives on hold and gave their all to find her family.
Fran retired from teaching public school in San Jose, California in 2001, where she raised her three sons, and moved to Anchorage, Alaska where she enjoys the pristine beauty of the outdoors. Her beloved husband, Don Phillips, passed away in 2012. She is currently serving for two years in the Family History and Church History Headquarters Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah where you can find her hostessing in the Family History Library.