MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. (AP) ― A Madera County sheriff says search teams have confirmed that wreckage found in the rugged eastern mountains of California is that of missing adventurer Steve Fossett's airplane.
Sheriff John Anderson says an aerial search late Wednesday spotted what appeared to be wreckage in the Inyo National Forest near the town of Mammoth Lakes. He says ground crews were sent to verify the sighting, and they confirmed it was Fossett's single-engine Bellanca plane.
Stuart would not reveal the exact location of the reported sighting. She said ground crews headed there Wednesday night and hoped to confirm Thursday whether there is actual wreckage and whether it belongs to Fossett.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday morning a team of federal investigators was on its way to the site.
Authorities warned that a snowstorm forecast for the eastern Sierra Nevada could hamper the search. They also cautioned that hundreds of planes have gone down in the region, so any wreckage found could be that of other aircraft.
Authorities said that if Fossett survived a crash, he may have hiked through rugged terrain to the site where the IDs were found.
"There must be some reason those things were found there," Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said at a news conference late Wednesday.
The hiker, Preston Morrow, said he found a Federal Aviation Administration identity card, a pilot's license, a third ID and $1,005 cash tangled in a bush off a trail just west of the town of Mammoth Lakes on Monday. He said he turned over the items to local police Wednesday after unsuccessful attempts to contact Fossett's family.
The information on the pilot's license - including Fossett's name, address, date of birth and certificate number - matched FAA records, spokesman Ian Gregor said.
Authorities authenticated two of the documents, including Fossett's pilot's license, Anderson said.
The IDs provide the first possible clue about Fossett's whereabouts since he disappeared Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a single-engine plane borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.
The discovery of the millionaire adventurer's IDs gave his widow renewed hope.
"I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband's remains," Peggy Fossett said in a statement Wednesday. "I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort."
Aviators had flown over Mammoth Lakes, about 90 miles south of the ranch, in the search for Fossett, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane. The most intense searching was concentrated north of the town, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett's plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.
Morrow, 43, who works in a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, said he initially didn't know who Fossett was. It wasn't until he showed the items to co-workers Tuesday that one of them recognized Fossett's name.
"It was just weird to find that much money in the backcountry, and the IDs," he said. "My immediate thought was it was a hiker or backpacker's stuff, and a bear got to the stuff and took it away to look for food or whatever."
Morrow said he returned to the scene Tuesday to search further with his wife and three others. The group found a black Nautica pullover fleece, size XL, in the same area, but Morrow wasn't sure if the items were related.
"It looked like it had been there a while - it was faded out quite a bit," Natalie Morrow said. She left the sweat shirt, but gathered GPS coordinates to guide authorities to the site.
Mammoth Lakes is at an elevation of more than 7,800 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, where peaks top 13,000 feet.
The California Civil Air Patrol and private planes from Hilton's ranch previously had flown over the area, but it was "extremely rough country," said Joe Sanford, undersheriff in Lyon County, Nev., which was involved in the initial search.
Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.
He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world's best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.