Alaska inattentiveness blamed in billionaire’s death
The once richest man in the Czech Republic did not die because of a helicopter crash in the Chugach Mountains just north of Alaska’s largest city in late March of 2021 as Alaska State Troopers reported at the time, according to a lawsuit filed in Anchorage Superior Court this week.
The suit contends Petr Kellner – the 56-year-old, billionaire founder of a global investment group – died because those involved in planning his heli-skiing adventure failed to organize a search and rescue in a timely fashion.
Kellner survived the crash, according to the filings, but died sometime during the approximately six hours it took rescuers to reach the scene about 20 miles southeast of Wasilla, the home base for Soloy Helicopters.
The suit contends Soloy, which owned the helicopter in which Kellner was a passenger; Tordrillo Mountain Lodge owner Triumvirate LCC, which had organized the heli-skiing adventure for Kellner; and Third-Edge Alaska, a heli-skiing guide business set up by the late Greg Harms, failed to responsibly monitor the helicopter and organize a search after it went down.
“Mr. Kellner suffered serious injuries but survived the initial impact and was alive and conscious after the accident,” the suit says.
The suit argues thar he would have lived if those injuries had been treated in a reasonable amount of time, though that is likely to be a subject of debate if a jury is ever seated to pass judgment.
Different doctors might well express different views.
Though troopers two years ago reported that only one person aboard the aircraft survived the crash, it has since been learned three were still alive after the helicopter hit a ridgeline near 6,000 feet above the Knik Glacier.
They were Kellner, the 52-year-old Harms, a Colorado ski guide with long experience in Alaska; and David Horváth, a 48-year-old former Olympic snowboarder and friend of Kellner from the Czech Republic.
Harms and Kellner would not live to see the arrival of lifesaving pararescuemen from the Alaska Air National Guard.
Horváth, however, held on despite dislocating both of his knees, breaking ribs and losing all of the fingers on his left hand and parts of those on his right due to frostbite while trapped in the wreckage of the helicopter until late into the night.
Based on his Facebook posts, he has since recovered well. He is now back home with his young family in Turnov in the mountains of the northern Czech Republic.
It was Horváth who revealed Kellner and Harms survived the crash and that knowledge became public last year after Harms’ partner, Chantel Ramsey, filed a wrongful death suit against Soloy in the U.S. District Court for Alaska.
A legendary extreme skier and the founder of Third Edge, Harms left behind not only Ramsey but an infant daughter.
The Ramsey case was eventually settled. The terms of that settlement have not been made public. But the filings did reveal what appeaered to be flaws in the way in which the heli-ski operation was being run.
Attorneys in the Harms case claimed that Harms “ultimately died due to lack of flight tracking and required communications with the subject helicopter, as well as several hours delay in communicating emergency search and rescue alerts, communications and plans.”
Attorneys for Kellner’s wife, Renáta Kellnerová, and Kellner’s Alaska representative, Wayne Eski, now appear to believe Soloy shouldn’t be the only Alaska business to pay for these alleged failings despite something of a friendship that had developed between Kellner, an adventurous European businessman, and the companies over the years.
Kellner had a long relationship with the pricey Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a highly respected leader in Alaska wilderness ski adventures.
Alaska’s Tommy Moe, an Olympic gold medalist in the downhill, and Wyoming buddy Mike Overcast, who founded Chugach Powder Guides and helped pioneer 49th state heli-skiing, are among the lodge’s owners.
A luxury, $18,000-per-week operation, Tordrillo has at one point or another been featured most favorably in just about every high-end travel publication in the world.
Soloy Helicopters, meanwhile, is a well-established Alaska company dating back to 1979 when Chris Soloy, who moved to Ketchikan with his family in 1958 and learned to fly at age 16, trekked north to Wasilla with his now late wife, Jan, to set up a family business.
Over time they grew their company to include 19 helicopters, two support airplanes and 28 full-time employees, Alaska Business magazine reported in 2019. The company had a sterling reputation before it became involved in what Ski Magazine described simply as “the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accident in North American history.”
The lawsuit filed in the name of Kellner’s wife and family argues that at least one of the deaths was due less to an accident than to systemic failings by everyone involved with the adventure both before and after the crash.
The suit contends the cause of the crash was 33-year-old Soloy pilot Zachary Russel, who died, “operating the helicopter in a careless, negligent and reckless manner,” but the focus of the litigation is primarily on what happened – or didn’t – after the six-seat, single-engine Eurocopter AS 350, or A-Star as it is more commonly called, slammed into the mountain.
After the crash, a strapped-in Horváth was left buried thigh-deep in snow in 14-degree weather for six hours before the Alaska Guard helicopter operating in the midnight dark could put a team of pararescue specialists on the ground.
Only about two hours, however, passed between the time the Guard was assigned the rescue mission and the paras were on the ground beside the smashed aircraft.
This is a fairly standard timeline for such rescues in the Chugach, Kenai, Talkeetna and Aleutian chain mountains surrounding Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson (JBER) where the fabled 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons are based.
The lawsuit argues that if the Guard had launched shortly after the crash instead of four hours after, Kellner would be alive.
“Due to (trip) operators’ failures to monitor the location and status of the helicopter; failure to properly install, operate and maintain the emergency location transmitter (in the helicopter), failure to initiate a prompt emergency response, and failure to notify authorities,” the suit says, “rescue personnel did not reach the accident scene until several hours after they otherwise would have.
“By the time they located Mr. Kellner’s body, he had succumbed to what were survivable injuries.”
For reasons yet to be officially determined ,the emergency location transmitter (ELT) did not activate. That is among issues still under investigation by the National Transportion Safety Board (NTSB).
The lawsuit contends Soloy failed “to ensure that the device was properly installed, operated and maintained.” But that has yet to be proven. There could be other reasons it didn’t activate.
ELTs are, however, a last means of communication, and the suit also argues hat someone should have been maintaining regular contact with the pilot and guide with “pre-flight plans and procedures, including but not limited to the use of pre-planned check-in times, routes, ski runs and landing zones.
“Taking these precautions should have promptly alerted the operators of the need for an emergency response and location of their passengers.”
Without any of these safety procedures in place, there was no hint the aircraft had crashed until an hour and a half later when it failed to show up as scheduled at 8 p.m. back at its home base in Wasilla.
After that, Soloy began organizing its own search. It did not notify the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at JBER that it had a missing aircraft until 9:10 pm.
“Nearly three hours after the accident,” according to the suit, “a helicopter (believed to have been owned by Third Edge) located the wreckage after finally being dispatched to investigate the helicopter’s last known location. The helicopter that located the wreckage did not render aid.”
The wreckage was in terrain where the helicopter could not land, and the wreckage eventually slid down the slope Kellner and others had hoped to ski and snowboard.
Soloy at 9:40 relayed to the RCC that wreckage had been spotted and wreckage. The RCC within minutes called up the rescue squadron, but by the time help arrived on the scene it was too late for Harms or Kellner.