2 missing men found dead with plane off Promontory Point

Saturday , January 13, 2018 - 5:19 PM

ANDREA HARVEY, Standard-Examiner staff

BOX ELDER COUNTY — After two weeks of search and recovery efforts, the two men missing from Box Elder County were found dead Saturday in the Great Salt Lake.

The bodies of Denny Mansell, 71, and Peter Ellis, 74, were recovered from the site of a crashed Cessna-172 airplane off Promontory Point, officials say.

Chief Deputy Dale Ward with the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office said in a press conference that the families have been notified and the bodies were transferred to the Utah State Medical Examiner’s Office, where an autopsy will determine the exact cause of death.

The men and the plane had been missing since Friday, Dec. 29, when they left the Ogden-Hinckley Airport around 3:30 p.m. to fly to the Promontory area to watch the trains at the Golden Spike Historic Site. They were reported missing at about 9:20 p.m. that night.

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“All members of this operation send our condolences to the Ellis and Mansell family,” Ward said. “We’re pleased that we were able to bring some closure to the family with the recovery today.”

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Ward said National Transportation Safety Board investigators and the insurance company of the airplane will now take over on recovering the aircraft, which was discovered last weekend under 20 feet of water in the Great Salt Lake, according to a press release from the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office.

Ward stressed the difficulty of the mission, and listed several involved agencies and officers, including Box Elder County Sheriff, BE Search and Rescue, Utah Department of Public Safety, Civil Air Patrol, Box Elder Communications Center, Utah Division of Natural Resources and Weber County Scuba/Search and Rescue.

“This was probably the most technical operation that either Weber or Box Elder teams have ever done,” Ward said during the conference, describing complications with boats and dive equipment due to the saline levels in the Great Salt Lake. “Divers had to almost double their body weight in order to get down to the aircraft. ... The visibility was less than a foot under water and most of the work had to be completed by feel.”

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Following prep work on Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning, search-and-rescue teams were on the water by 9:30 a.m. Saturday and completed the mission at 11:30 a.m. with the recovery of the bodies, Ward said.

“The success of this dive was because the Weber Dive Team spent the past week getting familiar with a similar aircraft at the Ogden Airport and practicing how doors opened, location of equipment in the cabin, how the safety belts operated, etc.,” Ward said in a press release. “These practice sessions were done by feel to simulate dive conditions.”

Ward also emphasized the danger of the operation. The diver who found the men nearly entered a hypothermic state before he could remove his suit, Ward said.

However, all participants in the operation are now safe, he said.

Ward credits the family members of both men and their knowledge of airplanes for the quick location of the aircraft. Some family members were commercial pilots.

The family was assisted by mathematicians who calculated data to help pinpoint the plane’s location, greatly reducing the scope of their search, Ward said.

And the success of the operation despite its difficult location was due to the dedication of rescue workers, he added.

“We certainly hope we don’t have to dive in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake anytime soon,” he said.

“We are not going to give up searching until the loved ones are recovered. We will search until we cannot search any longer.”

This story was last updated with details and quotes at 8:28 p.m. Saturday.

Reporters Sarah Welliver and JaNae Francis contributed to this story.

Contact Andrea Harvey at aharvey@standard.net, follow her on Twitter at @andrearharvey or on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaHarveyJourno.

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