Crews recover bodies of missing Ogden men from Great Salt Lake after plane crash

BOX ELDER COUNTY, Utah -- Search and rescue crews have recovered the bodies of two Ogden men who were reported missing aboard a small airplane in December.

Denny Mansell, 71, and Peter Ellis, 74, were reported missing December 29 after they took off from Ogden and planned to fly over the Winter Steam Festival at Golden Spike Historical Site.

Search crews began looking for the men when they did not return when anticipated, and last weekend boat crews using sonar located an object in the north arm of the Great Salt Lake believed to be an airplane the same size and shape as the missing Cessna 172.

Box Elder County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Dale Ward credits the victims' families for their help in locating the plane. He said experienced commercial pilots from both families were able to analyze radar data and greatly narrow down the search area.

Foggy weather delayed attempts to dive into the lake and confirm the object was the missing airplane, but crews returned Saturday around 7 a.m. to resume the effort. Later Saturday divers recovered the bodies of the two missing men.

"We're pleased that we were able to bring some closure to the family with the recovery today," Ward said, extending condolences on behalf of all the crews involved.

A medical examiner will conduct an autopsy to determine the official cause of death.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the insurance company are responsible for recovering the plane, according to Ward. He said it is crucial they recover the plane soon because the salt will inhibit investigators' ability to determine why the plane went down. According to divers, the plane was mostly intact; the wings and fuselage were still attached.

Authorities say this is the most technical dive operation crews in Weber and Box Elder county have ever conducted. The plane was in water about 20 feet deep, and at that depth dive teams worked with only about 1-foot of visibility. They practiced searching a similar plane by feel at the Ogden-Hinckley Airport so they would be prepared to locate the Cessna 172 in the murky water.

Three divers went down, but only one reached the plane. It took him half an hour to recover Mansell and Ellis.

"Imagine seeing shadows," Ward said. "That's all you're seeing at a distance of a foot. You can see something's there and you reach out and touch it, and move on from there."

The salinity of Great Salt Lake meant divers had to nearly double their body weight to descend, and the divers were near hypothermic when they came out of the cold water. Crews say the salt destroyed or damaged four boat motors, two of which were specifically designed to withstand such conditions.

Despite difficulties throughout the operation, Ward said they had no intentions of giving up.

"We are not going to give up until we are able to bring these loved ones home to their families," Ward said. "We will search 'til we can't search anymore. That's the end of it."