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Former NASA Administrator and Secretary of the Navy Sean O'Keefe was dazed and confused when he regained consciousness, unaware for a moment that the single-engine DeHavilland DHC-3T he and eight others had been flying en route to a remote Alaskan fishing camp had just crashed into the side of a mountain.
Pinned in the wreckage, in tremendous pain, O'Keefe surveyed his surroundings. The plane’s configuration had changed dramatically. No longer where there were two orderly rows of tan, canvas-covered seats; all had been thrown violently forward upon impact, including the seat containing 86-year-old Ted Stevens, the former longtime Republican United States senator from Alaska.
O'Keefe checked Stevens for a pulse, and found none.
"I realized my friend had passed away," O'Keefe, still wearing a neck brace, told NBC's Ann Curry in an exclusive interview scheduled to air on NBC’s Dateline tonight at 9 p.m. ET.
Neither the plane nor its veteran pilot, Terry Smith, had given any indication that the crash was imminent.
"There was no notice, no evasive maneuvers, no turbulence. nothing," said O'Keefe, who fractured his neck and broke his ankle in the crash. "It was just a very massive stop."
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Appearing Friday on TODAY, O'Keefe, 54, described regaining consciousness after the crash and calling out for his teenage son. Kevin O'Keefe, 19, had been seated next to the pilot when the plane took off 15 minutes earlier from a lodge owned by a telecommunications company.
O'Keefe shouted Kevin's name, but his son did not answer; he was unconscious and had a broken leg and a fractured jaw. It would be 5 or 10 minutes before Kevin began asking, "Where are we?"
At that point O'Keefe felt "relief," he told TODAY's Matt Lauer, recalling that he promised his wife at the start of the trip that he would bring their son "back in one piece."
The force of the crash had dislodged Kevin's seat. When he finally answered his father, Sean realized that his son was suspended in the air.
"It was surreal, him sort of hanging there, still in the harness," said O’Keefe, who returned to work in Arlington, Va., on Monday for the first time since the accident. "I couldn't imagine how difficult this would have been, and persevering through it, if he hadn't been able to respond."
Although his own son was alive and is on the mend, O'Keefe said it was difficult giving the news to Bill Phillips' son Willy, just 13 years old, that his dad did not survive the crash.
"Where's my dad? Where's my dad?" Willy asked. He was the only survivor able to walk about the wreckage until rescuers arrived hours later.
"Willy is an incredibly courageous young man. He matured in an instant from this whole experience" O'Keefe said. "He recognized what was going on ... He realized our lives hung in the balance."
Thinking back about Stevens, Phillips, the pilot, and two other passengers who perished, O'Keefe told Lauer that it just have easily could have been him and Kevin.
"The degree of separation between survival and not was a fraction of what you ever imagined. It could have been anybody," O'Keefe said. "The randomness of this whole experience was such that any doubts you have about divine intervention go away."
The cause of the crash remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Although the pilot's failure to file a flight plan for the short trip delayed the search and rescue effort, investigators have said that the injuries to those who died were so severe that the response time was probably not a factor.
For more about Sean O’Keefe’s story, watch Dateline on NBC Friday at 9 p.m. ET.