They say “Home is where the heart is.” This week, hearts from every corner of Daleray Madewell and Jennifer Sebesta’s home in Converse County are broken following their sudden and tragic deaths in the mountains of Utah.
Madewell, a local pilot and owner of Double D Liquors in Douglas, departed Feb. 9 on a mission for the Wyoming chapter of Pilots for Christ. His goal: fly to Salt Lake City in his 1960 Cesna, retrieve Sebesta, and bring her back home.
Pilots for Christ is a nation-wide, non-profit, non-denominational Christian organization that unites private pilots to fly sick or needy individuals all over the country, free of charge. Wyoming has the largest chapter in the U.S. with 28 pilots and serves nearly two times as many patients each year.
Sebesta, a Registered Nurse at Memorial Hospital of Converse County in Douglas, was LifeFlighted to Salt Lake with her sick grandmother so that her grandmother could recieve care at a hospital there. Without a ride home, Sebesta’s friend and co-worker, Becky Oliver, suggested her brother, Daleray as a possibility.
As Madewell was entering Utah airspace, he noticed a weather system sitting over the mountains between Salt Lake and himself, so rather than chancing it, he decided to land short and try to meet Sebesta in Morgan County, Utah, approximately 50 miles away.
“As a pilot, he made a good descision to land short instead of trying to go over the top when the weather was bad on top,” McDuff said. “When he called me, I applauded him on that. I said ‘Good catch, excellent decision.’ Beyond that it was decent enough that he thought he could take off, you know, he’s not an unsafe pilot.”
Sebesta took a car from Salt Lake and met Madewell in Morgan County and the pair took off for home.
According to the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office, Madewell was attempting to turn his plane around to return to the Morgan County Airport, the reason is still unknown at this time.
Around 7 p.m., after Madewell failed to check in, McDuff deemed the flight overdue and contacted the Flight Service.
According to Civil Air Patrol Spokesman, Stephen Miller, a search party was organized, but worsening weather prevented search planes from taking off so a search area was triangulated and three teams equipped with emergency locator transmitter locators headed into the forest via snowmobile. After hours of searching on foot with snowshoes, the teams were able to narrow the search effort to a small canyon, but decided to break until morning.
When day broke on Feb. 10, a helicopter from the Utah Air Patrol took off from the Morgan County Airport and headed for the mountains. After about 15 minutes, the plane was located at the bottom of steep section of Cottonwood Canyon, only about nine miles from the airport. There were no survivors.
This tragedy marks the first loss of life in the 27-year history of Pilots for Christ.
“We’re doing a ministry for the Lord,” McDuff said. “We’re helping people, and offering this at no charge to people that need the help.
“Our pilots are held to the same standards that all pilots (who are) licensed and certified by the FAA, so we don’t accept anyone in our ranks that’s not current on all of their certifications and their aircraft maintenance. Everything has to be done to the letter of the law.”
The exact cause of the crash is still unknown at this time and is under investigation.
Madewell, 47, who was born and raised in Douglas, was well known for his generosity and flew approximately 20 flights for WPFC. He leaves behind five children and his significant other, Denise Murphy.
“He was doing what he loved best, helping people and flying,” McDuff said. “He was a good dad and a good member of your community.”
Sebesta, 35, was a graduate of Glenrock High School and loved welcoming new babies into the world on the obstetrician floor at MHCC. She leaves behind three children.
“The Memorial Hospital family was deeply saddened to learn of Jennifer’s death,” Memorial Hospital of Converse County CEO Ryan Smith said. “She had been a nurse at MHCC since 2003 and was a dedicated and caring member of our Labor and Delivery Team. Her tragic loss is only amplified by the death of Daleray, who had volunteered countless hours flying patients and families to regional healthcare facilities as a Pilots for Christ pilot. Both families have our deepest sympathy and condolences.”
A public funeral service for Daleray Madewell will be held at 10 a.m. Feb. 16 at the Fort Reno Building at the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas, with Chaplain Wayne Laddusaw with the Pilots for Christ officiating.
Pilots for Christ pilots will fly a tribute to Madwell following the service.
A funeral service for Jennifer Sebesta will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 18, at the Glenrock High School Gymnasium in Glenrock with Bishop Brooke Downs of the Glenrock Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints conducting the service. Interment will be in the Glenrock Cemetery.
For more information, please see Obituaries on page A-5.