SAN JOSE -- The Sunday morning before the plane disappeared, there was just happiness and hope for the close and vibrant Smith family, who had spent Thanksgiving weekend together in Baker City, Ore. They gathered in a church foyer, formed a circle and embraced in a big group hug.
Sharing good wishes, the extended family of 12 promised to meet up again Jan. 4, the wedding day of the youngest Smith daughter, Amber.
"It was the sweetest goodbye a family could have," mother Janis Smith said Monday.
After joining the search for two weeks in Idaho backcountry for her husband's single-engine Beech Bonanza and half of her family, Smith has finally come home to San Jose.
Officials shut down their own search efforts last week, with little hope left that family patriarch Dale Smith and four family members could have survived in the subfreezing temperatures even if they survived a crash.
Janis Smith has put up a Christmas tree, a nativity scene and a wreath on the door. She's trying to keep up a semblance of family tradition for her two youngest sons, Nathan, 12, and Craig, 17. Men from the family's church, the Blossom Valley ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered to string up the lights on the house.
With her boys performing in school Christmas concerts, life is hectic, which helps.
"It's been busy, chaotic and filled with love," she said. "I haven't had any quiet moments. I feel like just staying in this state of denial. My family is still missing. They truly are just missing."
An avid pilot, Smith was on his way Dec. 1 from the holiday weekend in Oregon to drop off his son, Daniel, 26, and his wife, Sheree, at their home in Butte, Mont. Also along for the ride were Amber, 20, and her fiance, Jonathan Norton, who planned to drive from there back to school at BYU, Idaho to complete their senior year.
Dale Smith radioed that he was having engine trouble. His plane was icing and he wanted directions to land at the Johnson Creek airport, a grass landing strip bordered by 60-foot trees and popular with campers in the warmer months.
Janis Smith's decision to leave Idaho's rugged wilderness last Thursday was excruciating -- especially because the search began with optimism.
At first they seemed to have everything on their side: The weather was frigid, but two storms that could have buried the plane in snow didn't materialize. The family believed they could endure the wilderness if it came to that.
Smith, a Silicon Valley tech executive, is often called "MacGyver" after the 1980s TV show because of his resourcefulness. The two young men on the plane are Eagle Scouts. Joining the search were Smith's brother, Dellon, a professional Alaska bush pilot, and Sheree's father, Barry Chalmers, a mapping expert.
With scores of official searchers and volunteers, including snowmobile clubs from McCall, Idaho, San Jose church members in snowshoes and 3,600 people logging onto a satellite mapping website called TomNod to help scan potential crash sites, the Smith family were hopeful. But the terrain is treacherous by land and tricky to read by satellite imagery. The forests are dense. Trees cast long shadows. "We still hope they're alive," said Dale Smith's mother, Fran Smith Phillips, who is staying with her daughter-in-law and grandsons at the family home in South San Jose's Santa Teresa neighborhood. "To face the reality that a massive search effort had come up empty is extremely, extremely difficult."
She was so proud of her son, who not only founded and sold data storage company Data Transit and is CEO of SerialTek in San Jose, but also volunteered to fly dentists to Baja and medical patients to hospitals with "Angel Flights." He and his wife are leaders in their Mormon church, and he has volunteered at the church's Boy Scout camp every year.
Before Janis Smith came home, she conferred at length with the Valley County sheriff leading the search and her brother-in-law, the Alaska bush pilot, who delivered a painful prognosis: "We've covered everything and I don't know where else to look."
With advice from the two men who "really know and really care," she decided it was "time for me to come home to be with my boys here."
"Maybe there's something you're not supposed to know at this time," she tells herself. Her faith is helping give her perspective and strength. "People say in the spring, it will be easier."
Relatives of the Smith family, including six of Janis Smith's siblings from across the county, have returned to their homes. A private search continues, however, with Dellon Smith and Jonathan Norton's uncle helping coordinate volunteers. The TomNod website -- https://sites.google.com/site/searchfordalesplane/ -- is open for people to study the satellite images of the terrain.
The disappearance came after a difficult year for the Smith family. Janis Smith spent much of the year in Provo, Utah, tending to her oldest daughter, Crystal Christensen, 23, who was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. She underwent her last chemotherapy treatment two weeks before Thanksgiving and the family was anxious to celebrate in Oregon, where they rented a big house on five acres near Dale Smith's father and his wife.
They spent the weekend making a go-cart and speeding down the mile-long dirt road, playing pingpong and talking about Amber's wedding. They posed for a family portrait.
"I feel like we have had more fun and life experiences in our 28 years than most people have in a lifetime," Janis said. "In my mind, I'm going to keep them as missing until we find evidence. I could never forgive myself if I gave up on them and they came walking out of the forest."
Eric Kuhri contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at twitter.com/juliasulek