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Survivor recalls plane crash that took friend's life

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To Frederick “Rick” Hammer Jr., Dan Steffen was not only a friend, he was like a member of his family.

Steffen, 55, Crosslake, died Sunday morning after his small airplane crashed into Upper Whitefish Lake near Crosslake. Hammer, 61, of Crosslake, was Steffen’s passenger and suffered extensive injuries in the crash. In a telephone interview Wednesday from his hospital bed at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Hammer said Steffen would be greatly missed by all who knew him.

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“Dan was a very good friend of ours,” said Hammer, who expected to go home Wednesday. “We’ve known each other since the late ‘70s. We did a lot of snowmobiling together, a lot of guy stuff together.”

Hammer said that he and Steffen have flown in plenty of planes together.

“He loved to fly,” said Hammer. “He bought the plane already built and it was fully checked and he was in it many times. He wouldn’t have taken anyone up with him if it wasn’t safe.”

Hammer said Steffen called him Sunday morning and asked him if he wanted to go flying on his new plane — a Skystar Kitfox 4 fixed-wing, single-engine plane. Hammer, who is a professional commercial photographer, said yes, grabbed his camera and went to meet with Steffen.

Hammer said Steffen was meticulous on the safety of his airplanes. Before the two took off Steffen did all the proper safety checks. Hammer said Steffen went step-by-step on the safety measures with him. It was those safety measures that saved his life, Hammer said.

“It was an experimental plane,” said Hammer. “He (Steffen) did a pre-flight with it and when we took off, it went up with no problem ... We were strapped in with very good safety belts. There were three belts.”

Hammer said they were about 800-1,000 feet in the air before the crash occurred. They were just starting to fly lower so Hammer could shoot some photos. Hammer guessed that they were traveling more than 50 mph.

“(We) weren’t doing anything crazy ... We were on Upper Whitefish and we did a slight climb and then all of a sudden it pitched hard left and we went into a spiral, nose down. We didn’t have time to say anything, it all happened so fast.

“I was shocked. I was conscious the whole time. When we hit the water, it came pouring into the plane and everything hurt like crazy. I grabbed my safety belt and got out. I couldn’t see Dan. I was trying to get to Dan but I couldn’t get to him. I was helpless. My arms and legs weren’t working.”

Hammer said when he crawled over the plane to try to get to Steffen an eyewitness came to help him. Hammer said he was placed on a boat and the eyewitness went to look for Steffen.

“The guy tried to get him out, but he told me that Dan didn’t make it,” said Hammer.

Hammer said Steffen has a wife and two teenage children. A celebration of life for Steffen will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at Crosslake Evangelical Free Church “The Log Church.” Family and friends are invited to gather one hour prior to services at the church and share memories and stories of Steffen at a reception to follow.

Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl said Wednesday that the cause of the crash continues to be under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The plane crash was reported at 9:52 a.m. Assisting the sheriff’s office at the scene were the Crosslake, Nisswa and Breezy Point police departments; the Minnesota State Patrol; the DNR; North Memorial Ambulance Service; Ideal and Crosslake fire departments; and first responders.

JENNIFER STOCKINGER may be reached at jennifer.stockinger@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5851. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jennewsgirl.

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