Aug. 31, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - There were certain truths that Andrew Phillips never doubted before the DeHavilland floatplane went down on a remote Alaskan hillside on Aug. 9.
Stanford’s fifth-year offensive guard knew his youngest brother, Willy, was tough. He also knew his teammates cared for him. But what Andrew discovered most after the crash that killed his father, Bill, and injured Willy, were the dimensions of both.
The phone rang without ceasing in the early morning hours of Aug. 10. At first, a groggy Phillips, who had completed the first day of fall training camp the day before, slept through it. When he finally awoke enough to realize what the ringing was, he picked up the phone.
It was Andrew’s mother, Janet. There was a plane crash, she said. His father and brother were both on board. Some passengers were dead, some were alive. She didn’t know who. She told him to pray.
Phillips bravely remained composed, yet with a touch of emotion, on Monday as he described the events of that day publicly for the first time. He recalled catching the first plane to Seattle on the first leg of a journey to Anchorage. Phillips purchased wi-fi access on the plane and checked his phone constantly, sending a flurry of texts and e-mails to relatives in an effort to find out more.
Once Phillips got off the plane, his fears were confirmed. He reached an aunt who told him, “Your brother’s OK … but your dad didn’t make it.”
“I was the first one in my family to find out,” said Phillips, the oldest of four sons. “I called my brothers to let them know. I called my mom.”
Phillips expected the worst as he headed to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage to see Willy. To his relief, Andrew’s first sight was of Willy joking with the nurses. The 13-year-old had a gash on his leg, a broken foot, a broken bone in his face, and a broken wrist, but was otherwise unharmed.
When Willy saw Andrew, he said, “Take a picture of my leg. I can’t see it. I want to see it.”
“He was kind of playful, happy, and excited that he was getting taken care of and that it was all over,” Andrew said. “The fact that I walked in that day and saw my brother smiling at me, that he wanted a picture of his leg … that was an unbelievable blessing.”
Over the course of the next few days, and after talking to doctors, rescue personnel, and even the bush pilot who spotted the plane’s wreckage, Andrew learned the full scope of his brother’s heroism.
The plane, which included former Alaska senator Ted Stevens and former NASA chief Sean O’Keefe, had set out from a lodge toward a wilderness camp northwest of Dillingham on a fishing trip for silver salmon. The flight had been delayed because of rain and fog.
Though the cause still is being investigated, the plane slammed nose first against the hillside. Willy was asleep and “woke up to a big bang, then looked around, and they were there,” Andrew said. “And that’s all he knew.”
Five died on impact and three others were badly injured. Willy was the only one of the four survivors who was mobile.
Willy tried to provide whatever assistance he could, keeping people warm, making them as comfortable as possible during the two hours or so after the crash. But upon hearing the distant drone of a rescue plane, Willy knew he had to get help.
The wrecked plane remained on floats at the side of the mountain, making for a long drop to the ground. Though his foot was damaged, Willy dropped anyway, breaking it in two places.
Undeterred, Willy clawed his way up the mountain and flagged down the pilot, who radioed to the Alaska National Guard that there were, in fact, survivors.
“That changed the game completely,” Andrew said. “Because, until then, they assumed the plane went down and everybody died. But seeing Willy run up, people knew that there was something to fight for, something to get to, because they knew that at least he was alive.”
Andrew had seen this kind of strength before in his brother. When Willy was a toddler, he was severely attacked by a Great Dane. Brother Paul kicked the dog off him and pulled Willy away, saving his life. But Willy was left with many permanent scars.
“Even through that, he recovered, got his treatment and said, ‘that’s it,’” Andrew said. “He didn’t complain, he didn’t curse the world out. He just kind of accepted it and knew it was a hardship he had to go through. He treated this the exact same way.”
When Andrew met the survivors and medics, Willy was all they could talk about.
“I introduced myself as Willy’s brother and Bill’s son, and they would just rave on and on,” Andrew said. “‘Your brother’s a hero, your brother’s a great kid. Your brother did this, did that. I needed this and Willy did this for me.’”
For a brief moment, Andrew’s voice wavered.
“I knew Willy was a tough kid,” he said. “But that just really made me proud.”
At Stanford, the news of the Phillips tragedy, “shocked everybody,” fifth-year senior Owen Marecic said. “It was a tough hit to the gut.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh was one of Phillips’ first calls in those confusing and frantic early-morning hours. He informed the team of the crash before the morning practice.
“We were all devastated,” quarterback Andrew Luck said. “I think a lot of guys didn’t know what to do. Not many people get in that situation, where a friend or a brother is in such a terrible situation.”
The team responded by keeping Andrew involved. Through texts and phone calls, they kept in constant touch, letting him know what happened in practice and keeping him active in team activities.
Harbaugh and some Stanford players left camp to attend Bill’s funeral at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Md., and heard Andrew eulogize his father.
“He’s a great guy and it’s a great team,” Luck said. “We didn’t want him to be alone in that time of pain.”
Though Phillips was “rusty” upon his return, defensive lineman Sione Fua said he never let up, nor did the defense let up on Andrew in practice.
“He was moving his feet well, but there was a little bit of rust,” Fua said. “But we would never take it easy on each other. I would expect the same thing from him, to just give it all he’s got on every play, even if I was I was in the same circumstance.
“I think he’s really responded well. The team was really rallying behind him. He’ll definitely be a leader for us this year.”
After one practice, center Chase Beeler stood before the team with a suggestion. The three team captains already had been chosen for the season, but Beeler asked that Phillips be considered as an honorary captain for the opener Saturday against Sacramento State at Stanford Stadium, as a tribute to Bill Phillips and his family. The choice was easy.
“I’m extremely grateful,” Phillips said. “I love this team. I love everyone on this team. I would do anything for anyone on this team. They know that and I know they would do the same for me.
“I never had to go through anything alone, because I knew I had two families, on both sides of the country. One back east, and one here at Stanford."
Phillips paused for a moment.
"It's funny," he said. "With this whole experience, I've learned that even when things get really bad, there's still a lot to be thankful for."
The family has started a fund to honor Bill Phillips. Donations can be made to: Stanford Football Family Emergency Fund c/o Matt Doyle, Stanford University, 641 East Campus Drive, Stanford, CA 94305, or The College Athlete Emergency Assistance Fund c/o Utrecht & Phillips, 1900 M Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington, D.C., 20036.
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-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics