Officials Finish at Fossett Site as Storm Blows In

Parts of metal from the plane twisted into a tree.
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MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. - Investigators finished up Friday at the scene of Steve Fossett's plane crash in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada just as dark clouds rolled in and winds picked up ahead of a storm that threatened to bury any remaining evidence under 2 feet of snow.

They discovered three more bone fragments Friday, said Madera County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Erica Stuart. Like a piece found the day before, they will be sent to a lab to determine whether they are human and a match for Fossett, the famous adventurer.

Teams of volunteers, as well as local and federal search crews, had furiously combed the site for any evidence that could help piece together the mystery of Fossett's plane crash more than a year ago.

Mangled and charred plane parts and other bundles of debris were headed to a warehouse in Sacramento where investigators planned to lay them out for examination. There were a lot of pieces, "consistent with a high-energy impact, which means the aircraft was traveling at great speed," Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a media briefing.

"We'll be looking at the entire fuselage to make sure nothing broke off to cause the accident," he said.

Fossett vanished Sept. 3, 2007, during what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight from a Nevada ranch owned by his friend Barron Hilton.

Despite several searches by air and on the ground over the past year, efforts to find his single-engine plane had been unsuccessful. The break came this week when a hiker found Fossett's identification cards in a remote wilderness area near Mammoth Lake about 65 miles southwest of Hilton's ranch.

Thrill-seeker Fossett gained worldwide fame for setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. Investigators wondered if weather had anything to do with the fatal crash.

"Mr. Fossett is an accomplished aviator who flew very complicated aircraft; yet on this day, he was flying one relatively simple to fly," Rosenker said. "It will take us awhile to understand this very interesting and very tragic accident."

The NTSB is attempting to gather radar and weather data to determine what the conditions were in the area the day of the accident. They hope the radar data will help them pinpoint the time of the crash.

"Maybe we'll be able to grab radar data and get lucky," Rosenker said.

Fossett left the ranch around 9 a.m. and was due for lunch with Hilton at noon. He was last seen about an hour before the planned lunch flying less than 100 feet above the ground not far from the ranch, according to a report last month by the NTSB.

Weather records should allow investigators to "have a better understanding of potential winds, clouds and turbulence. The process is not simple," Rosenker said.

According to the National Weather Service, it was generally clear and calm in the Mammoth Lakes region the morning of the crash. Local officials say some storm clouds did move in, however.

Investigators also have recovered gauges from the plane they hope will show speed and altitude.

Bill Manning, airport and transportation director at Mammoth Yosemite Airport, said the high Sierra is a beautiful but dangerous area to fly, estimating that the region sees three to five small plane crashes every year.

"It's hugely rugged. ... It's a fabulous environment but unforgiving, for sure," he said. "Anytime you fly in the mountains, it's not like you're going to land on a highway. There just aren't many places you can put an airplane down and walk away."