DNA experts are preparing to test what are believed to be the remains of millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett, found in the wreckage of his plane.
Search teams announced last night that they had found enough human remains for DNA testing in the wreckage of Mr Fossett’s plane, discovered in California’s rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.
Mr Fossett, 63, vanished on a solo flight 13 months ago. The mangled debris of his single-engine Bellanca was spotted from the air yesterday morning near the town of Mammoth Lakes and was identified by its tail number. Investigators said the plane had slammed straight into a mountainside.
The remains were found in a field of debris 400ft long and 150ft wide in a steep section of the mountain range, the National Transportation Safety Board said. Some personal effects also were found at the crash site, but investigators would not describe them in any detail.
“We found human remains, but there’s very little. Given the length of time the wreckage has been out there, it’s not surprising there’s not very much,” said National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Mark Rosenker. “I’m not going to elaborate on what it is.”
Jeff Page, emergency management co-ordinator for Lyon County, Nevada, who assisted in the search, said of the plane crash: “It was a hard-impact crash and he (Mr Fossett) would have died instantly.”
Most of the plane’s fuselage disintegrated on impact and the engine was found several hundred feet away at an elevation of 9,700 feet, authorities said.
“It will take weeks, perhaps months, to get a better understanding of what happened,” Mr Rosenker said.
Search crews and cadaver dogs scoured the steep terrain around the crash site in hopes of finding at least some trace of Mr Fossett’s body and solving the mystery of his disappearance once and for all.
Mr Rosenker said enough remains were found to provide coroners with DNA.
Mr Fossett vanished on September 3 last year after taking off from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. The intrepid balloonist and pilot was scouting locations for an attempt to break the landspeed record in a rocket-propelled car.
His disappearance spurred a huge search that covered 20,000 square miles, cost millions of dollars and included the use of infrared technology. A judge declared Mr Fossett legally dead in February.
For a while, many of his friends held out hope he survived, given his many close scrapes with death over the years.
The breakthrough – in fact, the first trace of any kind – came earlier this week when a hiker stumbled across a pilot’s licence and other ID cards belonging to Mr Fossett a quarter of a mile from where the plane was later spotted in the Inyo National Forest. Investigators said animals might have dragged the IDs from the wreckage while picking over Mr Fossett’s remains.
The rugged area, about 65 miles from the ranch, had been flown over 19 times by the California Civil Air Patrol during the initial search but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane.
Instead, searchers had concentrated on an area north of Mammoth Lakes, given what they knew about sightings of Mr Fossett’s plane, his travel plans and the amount of fuel he had.
“With it being an extremely mountainous area, it doesn’t surprise me they had not found the aircraft there before,” Lyon County Undersheriff Joe Sanford said.
As for what might have caused the crash, Mono County, California, Undersheriff Ralph Obenberger said there were large storm clouds over the peaks around Mammoth Lakes on the day Mr Fossett disappeared.
Mr Fossett made a fortune in the Chicago commodities market and gained worldwide fame for setting records in hi-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world’s best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
“I hope now to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life,” Mr Fossett’s widow, Peggy, said in a statement.
“I prefer to think about Steve’s life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments.”