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Recovery Begins for Plane that Dumped Wrestler Into Lake Powell

Recovery Begins for Plane that Dumped Wrestler Into Lake Powell

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A salvage operation began Monday for the airplane that crashed into Lake Powell in February and left Olympic wrestler Rulon Gardner swimming in 44-degree water and stranded on a remote beach overnight.

The recovery at the reservoir straddling Utah and Arizona was ordered by the National Park Service and will be paid for by the pilot's insurer.

"The Park Service has an interest seeing it removed because of the hazardous fuel and oil on the aircraft," Glen Canyon spokesman Kevin Schneider said.

Divers will attach cables before a winch-equipped, 44-foot catamaran lifts the small plane from a depth of 115 feet.

The Cirrus SR22 is largely intact and standing up on a sloping bottom, said James L. Cross Sr., a 30-year veteran of underwater salvage jobs who runs two marine companies from American Fork, Utah.

But it has an emergency parachute "that could cause us some grief" if it opens, said Cross, owner of Marine Projects Consulting Co. and Cross International Search and Recovery.

Cross and his crew were steaming Monday for Good Hope Bay, 28 miles from the nearest boat launch, where they planned to set moorings and anchors for their vessel and send divers to evaluate how to rig the plane with cables. They were hoping to get the plane to the surface by Tuesday.

The crash stranded Gardner, 35, his pilot and another man on a remote shoreline Feb. 24.

The pilot, Randy Brooks, was flying low over Lake Powell when the plane suddenly dipped and clipped the water's surface. It came to an abrupt stop and began sinking.

The three survived the crash with only bumps and bruises and managed to swim more than an hour in 44-degree water -- conditions that easily could have caused hypothermia in just half as much time, experts said.

After a night without fire or shelter, they flagged down a fisherman on a boat the next morning.

Gardner captured a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Two years later, he was stranded for a night by his snowmobile in subzero temperatures in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, about 15 miles from his hometown of Afton, Wyo.

He slipped into an icy creek several times. His body temperature fell to 88 degrees. He lost a toe to frostbite but survived.

Then, two years later, he survived a serious motorcycle accident in Wyoming. "He might be considered unlucky, but if I had to be in one of those situations, I'd rather be with him," Cross said. "It sounds like he survives everything."

At the bottom of Lake Powell, the nearly $300,000 plane, while mostly in one piece, is considered beyond repair. A hot engine can suck in water, leaving it ruined, and the carbon-fiber aircraft is believed to have suffered collision damage, Cross said. Finding the wreckage wasn't easy. "Once a plane hits the water, it has a tendency to continue to fly and can move out of the impact area," he said.

The single-engine Cirrus had drifted but was located by sonar. The recovery won't be as harrowing as Gardner's latest brush with death, but it has its own dangers, Cross said. Only a handful of divers in Utah are qualified to work in water 115 feet deep, where they will risk deadly decompression dangers after just 20 minutes. And spring runoff is turning Lake Powell muddy, reducing visibility.

Water temperatures are around 52 degrees -- "very cold for diving" -- requiring special dry suits made in Norway and insulated helmets equipped with radios, Cross said.

---- On the Net: Cross Marine Projects:

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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