It’s been 36 years...36 years on April 8th, 2016
Between 1980 and 1994
Channel 9 lost 6 helicopters
and 5 colleagues.
I was on board the first time Sky 9 crashed.
Monday April 8th, 1980, at 9 a.m.
The weather was cool and clear in Denver but the mountains were overcast with reports of wind gusts up to 70 miles an hour. Cloudy or clear, I always wore mountaineering sunglasses in Sky 9 to hide my eyes.
After awhile I learned to sleep sitting straight up and, with my mountaineering glasses on, he couldn’t tell whether I was awake or not; just one of my little copter survival skills. And copter skills were very important with no camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor and sometimes a hair raising trip standing outside on the skids for, what we thought was, a better shot.
The search was going on in the Rawah Wilderness Area located at the top of Poudre Canyon west above Ft. Collins. We found the Rocky Mountain Alpine Rescue Headquarters and met rescurer Hunter Holloway who accompanied us in Sky 9.
|No camera mount, no gyro-stabilizer, no monitor, no hair brush.|
And you might have to shoot standing outside on the skid.
It was all so surreal, and very chaotic. One second there was gray to my left and green to my right...then gray... then green... and gray and green. Round and round we went...in total silence. I remember very clearly after the first, and slowest rotation, Jug calmly saying into the microphone, “Hold on.” But after that, as we spun faster and then crashed into the treetops, there wasn’t a sound. It was eerie. Either my brain turned off the audio, or the helicopter headphones silenced what must have been a very noisy final approach. The searchers below hit the ground as we tumbled down through the trees, the rotor chopping 3-foot sections as we fell. Shrapnel shot everywhere as Sky 9 separated into thousands of pieces of flying debris. They said it was quite a sight, the tail rotor splitting off and landing on the other side of the road. Loud as hell. Sorry I missed it. The view wasn’t as good from my position.
|There were small pieces of aluminum honeycomb|
from the rotor and splinters of wood everywhere.
“Oh Shit! ”, the words perfectly encapsulating both the explosive emotion and the total comprehension of the moment.
The chaotic, bumping and banging came to a sudden dark and airless stop. The cabin remained intact, but we came to rest inverted and on our left side, breaking out the Plexiglas around me. There’s no doubt all four of us would have been killed except for one thing...the cushioning effect of 20 feet of soft, fresh Colorado Champaign powder. Powdery snow that was now flooding, like water, into the broken cockpit. I was upside-down, on my head and left shoulder, and entangled in headphone and video cables. Only my right wrist, located somewhere near my face, could move. It was completely black. I couldn’t see but more important, I couldn’t breathe. With my free hand I grabbed at my face realizing only now it was snow I was gagging on. Jug was suspended from his seat on the right side, up and out of the snow. In the confusion, he unfastened his seat harness, and fell, head first, into the normally overhead control panel. Jug now stood in the only place available to him...on top of me.
I don’t remember saying anything but Jug swears I was yelling “Fire!” I do remember thinking that fire was a distinct possibility but I don’t remember saying it out loud. As I was clearing my face of the choking snow with my available hand and finally able to breathe, I saw my fingers were covered with blood...blood from my head. This is where Jug claims I screamed, “Fire!” but I only remember yelling, “Get off me! Get off!” as his boots stepped all over my upside down body. I didn’t feel any pain but I certainly was concerned about that blood.
I needn’t have been. It was pouring down from the Jug’s head where he’d received a large gash from falling into the control panel after releasing his seat belt. It was all his blood on me but at the time I was convinced I was hurt pretty bad. It was a scary moment. Jug scrambled up to and out of the side door. I freed my arms from the snow, sat upright, disentangled myself from the cables and climbed to the edge of the doorway just as the huge Chinook passed low overhead looking, for all the world, like the mother ship in “Close Encounters”.
Once I realized I was still alive, my next thought was of the camera gear. I found the TV camera buried in the snow under the front of the helicopter but it wouldn’t fire up. It must have fallen out through the broken Plexiglas. The recorder was in the back seat and seemed to be all right. By now Jug had found a passing motorist, who gave him a sanitary napkin to use as a temporary head bandage. I can still see him being led away from his fallen copter with that Kotex tied on his head and a large gauze bow under his chin. Haney was in the back seat just regaining consciousness. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. The camera recorder had struck him in the head. He was put on a backboard and taken to the waiting Chinook, trying to shout over the engines in sort of a half-stoned voice, “Chuck, Get pictures. Get pictures“.
They were both flown to the hospital in Ft. Collins. Jug escaped with a few stitches and Haney regained control of his extremities by the afternoon. Hunter Holloway had escaped without a scratch. I had smashed my right leg into the center console and hurt my lower back in the crash but didn‘t feel any pain for about an hour. I was taken to a small cabin a half-mile away to stay warm.
It was then I noticed my shin was swelling tight against the inside of my pant leg. My back was beginning to throb too. I was hurt but didn’t say anything. I didn’t want anyone to make me leave the crash site because my back pack was in the luggage compartment of the wreckage. I didn't want to lose my money, credit cards and IDs. I didn’t care to have my personal possessions picked over by just anyone, or even worse left behind in the deep snow.
Gary Croshaw, the northern bureau reporter for Ch 4 showed up at the cabin about an hour after the crash. I told him what happened, but said we crashed too far off the road for pictures. He’s a good friend. I can’t believe I said that. I must have been in shock or more likely embarrassed to BE the story instead of COVERING it. I didn’t want anyone to see Sky 9 like that either.
The story broke on Denver radio stations early that morning and Margie heard as she was driving to work: “Sky 9 has crashed. There is no word on survivors.” You can imagine how she felt.
|What a way to start a Monday|
The snow had been trampled by rescuers and there was no way to tell where my falling back pack might have hit and disturbed the snow.
If they had found it, they would have brought it to me or, more likely, set it aside with the other camera gear. Since it wasn’t in plain sight, my guess was it landed under the wreckage. I tried to dig with the shovel but found nothing but more pain from my now steadily throbbing legs and back.
It was cold and windy but I stayed there, waiting and chatting with the deputy, until a crane arrived that afternoon and lifted the wreck. Sure enough, there buried underneath Sky 9 was my pack. My posessions were intact.
Within the hour Chief Photographer Sam Allen arrived from channel 9 and drove me and the gear back to Denver. We talked about the crash and compaired other close calls we’d had along the way and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. But, of course, it did. Over the next 14 years the station lost 5 more news helicopters and 5 lives. It was dangerous work.
All these years later, almost another lifetime, the joys and sorrows of the last 36 years seem all the more precious. All this living has been extra; a gift.
I tell traveling companions they’re safe with me because I’ve already crashed once, so the odds are not in favor of it happening again.
I’ve stopped at the crash site a few times over the years while crossing over Cameron Pass. I’ve paused at the three chopped-off trees on the north side of the road by the Chamber‘s Lake parking lot. I’ve sat there, beside the road with Margie, watching the sun sparkle off the broken pieces of plexi-glass still littering the ground. It makes me feel humble; humble and very, very grateful for all the extra time.