As official search efforts wound down for a plane that crashed last week in the mountains of Idaho, friends and family of the occupants remained at least a day longer while volunteers helped continue looking for the crash site.
"When you're out hiking on these mountains, looking with a couple inches of snow covering a white, crushed plane, you can't see anything," said Alan Dayton, of Salt Lake City, whose nephew Jonathon Norton, and his fiancÃ© Amber Smith, were passengers on the single-engine aircraft when it went down the afternoon of Dec. 1
With daytime temperatures hovering around 10 degrees, Dayton said occupants' families had acknowledged there was little hope the five occupants of the plane would be found alive.
On Monday, family members were put in touch with a miner who was working in a remote gold mine last week when he heard an airplane struggling above.
"At the right time and right day, he heard a plane in what he described as obvious distress, banking extremely hard. He looked up and couldn't see it because of cloud cover," Dayton said. The man did not meet with searchers earlier because he was in a such a remote location he had not heard that a plane had gone missing.
A volunteer pilot took Norton's mother over the area of the mine and turned the plane in various combinations to replicate what the miner heard and then used the plane's trajectories to map a search zone. But no sign of the wreckage was found, Dayton said.
Although the ground search had ended, air search efforts continued, Dayton said. In addition to volunteer pilots, a donor from California was providing drones to create ground images for searchers to analyze.
Norton's family was planning to discuss whether to stay at the search site any longer, Dayton said.
"Jonathon Norton's family is coming to the realization that we're not going to find him," Dayton said. If the air search turns up no new leads, the family will resume the search after the snow melts.
"There is just too much forest. It feels like we are looking for a needle in a haystack and unless you miraculously walk on top of the crash site you won't see it," he admitted.
Late Friday, the Valley County Sheriff's Office cited poor weather and lack of leads or new information is announcing the official search was being "scaled back" to a "limited number" of personnel on the ground.
"Even though we want to locate this plane, the one thing we cannot do is put people in harm's way," said Valley County Sheriff's Lt. Dan Smith.
On Monday, however, Idaho Transportation spokesman Reed Hollinshead confirmed that most of the search teams had "packed up and left" the area.