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He was entitled to a full-on meltdown or, failing that, several minutes of quiet, dignified weeping. But Andrew Phillips is an offensive lineman to the marrow of his mastodon-sized bones. That means he is disinclined to attract attention to himself. It means that, in addition to striking a blow, the 6'5" 302-pounder has been trained to absorb one. It means that stoicism is his default mode. So Phillips, who starts at left guard for Orange Bowl--bound Stanford, sat stone-faced on an airplane on Aug. 10, coming to terms with the worst news of his life.
He'd been awakened around four that morning by a call from his mother, Janet, who told him that his father, Bill, and 13-year-old brother, Willy, had been two of the nine people on a single-engine float plane that crashed into a mountain in southwest Alaska the previous afternoon. There were survivors, Janet told him. But no one knew yet whether his father and brother were among them.
Andrew hustled to the San Jose airport to catch a flight to Seattle, where he would connect to Anchorage. With the plane still taxiing to its gate in Seattle, Andrew phoned an aunt, who had news: Willy was banged up—he'd broken his nose and shattered his left ankle—but was going to be O.K.
"I asked her, 'Well, what about my dad?' " recalls Andrew.
"And that's when she just lost it."
The fog and rain enveloping Alaska's Lake Nerka had lifted. And so, shortly after 2 p.m. on Aug. 9, pilot Terry Smith agreed to fly a party of eight friends from a corporate lodge to a fishing camp 52 miles south and east, on the Nushagak River, where they hoped to catch the daily allowable limit of feisty, arm-long silver salmon. The plane never arrived, slamming into the side of a mountain with such force that it gouged a 300-foot-long trench, traveling uphill, before coming to rest. (The NTSB is still investigating the cause of the crash.)
Five died, but four lived—thanks in large part to Willy, who had crawled out of the fuselage and waved to a passing search plane. Without his signal, rescuers would have assumed that there were no survivors and taken much longer to reach the wreckage.
Because the dead included Ted Stevens, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, news accounts made only fleeting mention of the other victims. The pilot was killed, as were 48-year-old cable company executive Dana Tindall and her 16-year-old daughter, Corey, a 4.0 student who'd earned the men's respect the night before by taking their money at poker. The news stories that dwelled on anyone other than Stevens tended to mention his longtime friend Sean O'Keefe, the ex-NASA chief who survived the crash with broken bones, along with his 19-year-old son, Kevin. The fourth survivor, a Washington lawyer named Jim Morhard, broke 11 ribs and suffered other injuries, which, while severe, were not so debilitating that they prevented the thirsty Morhard from asking paramedics for permission to drink the beer that had been on the plane.
Rating only cursory mention was Bill Phillips, whom news outlets described as a "Washington, D.C., lobbyist and former Stevens chief of staff." While he was both of those things, that description doesn't begin to capture the oversized personality of this giant of a man. The 6' 7" Phillips, a former defensive lineman for the University of Evansville from 1972 through '75, was raised in Cleveland to have a love for the outdoors. One of his first jobs out of college was as an officer for the National Bank of Alaska in the backwater town of Homer, described on a local bumper sticker as A QUAINT LITTLE DRINKING VILLAGE WITH A FISHING PROBLEM.
"He was almost fired for one of his first loans," recalls Janet. Bill, as the story goes, was part of a team that had green-lighted a line of credit to a company that made, among other things, Moosel-toe or "Christmas ornaments fashioned from hardened moose-droppings," recalls his wife. Bill Phillips was not afraid to take a chance. While living in Alaska in the late 1970s, he bought his first commercial fishing boat, which would eventually evolve into Supreme Alaska Seafoods. "That industry was macho, dangerous, hard to make money," she says, drily, "so of course he found that irresistible."