Sunday, December 28, 2014

19- The Rocky Mountain Christmas Day Rescue

Thirty-five years ago, I spent Christmas Day 1979 in Rocky Mountain National Park covering a holiday plane crash rescue for ABC News.
Leaving home early, well before Santa finished his rounds, I met Sky9 pilot Jug Hill and reporter Kevin Roberts at the downtown helipad near Currigan Hall. When we took off in Denver that morning the wind was bad but grew even stronger as we approached Rocky Mountain National Park 75 miles to the northwest. The lost plane had been down for two nights before it was spotted by a Civil Air Patrol pilot far above timberline north of Milner Pass and Trail Ridge Road.
High winds, which nearly prevented us from flying at all, were hampering the mountain rescue operation. At the base camp on Trail Ridge Road, we found it would be hours before ground rescue teams could possibly reach the remote wreckage high above on Shipler Mountain. It would be 3 more months before Jug and I, in Sky9, would crash in similar conditions just north of here on Cameron Pass. So perhaps, without that in our history yet, we were a little overconfident about what we thought we could accomplish. In spite of the gusting wind, we decided to give it a try. We took an Emergency Medical Technician with us but, because of the high altitude, had to leave Kevin, the reporter, behind to save weight.

We located the wreckage below a ridge at 12,000 feet and attempted a landing just above it but were pushed back by swirling 90 mph wind gusts. We dropped to the ridge below the crash site trying to find a level place to land but the snow was too deep and powdery to support the helicopter. The strong winds and deep snow forced us to hover just inches above the snow several hundred yards below the crash site. I’d hoped to organize my gear a bit before stepping out but Jug started yelling for us to jump, because he couldn’t hold our position in the wind and was beginning to tilt backward. I grabbed everything in my arms and leaped from the left front seat into the deep snow below. The EMT did the same, jumping from the right back seat as Sky9 tilted further, leaned right and then slowly pulled away as we both sprawled in the white-out below. It took me several minutes to collect my equipment and prepare for the climb. The EMT was already well ahead, moving steadily toward the plane about 200 yards above. This was no easy task for either of us, in waist deep snow, hauling gear up a steep mountain side, but it helped that he broke trail for me and my awkward video gear. Still, it was like climbing in sand, one foot…step up…six inches…slide back down. We were driven to get to the plane because, even from a distance, we could see clothing stuffed into the broken windows, so we knew someone had lived through the crash. The EMT was ahead of me by a good 40 yards when he arrived at the plane. I tried like hell to catch up, but this guy never stopped. Not once. He was a monster. I desperately wanted the video and audio of him making first contact with the survivors but I couldn’t ask him to hold up until I got there, so I shot his approach from below as best I could. I finished climbing up to the plane and got shots of him caring for the injured family members. Four out of five on board were still alive. I was careful not to overshoot as tapes had 20 minutes of media and I only had one extra tape. I had worked up a sweat climbing up to the plane and my clothes were soaked. Now, in the strong, cold wind, my damp pants were beginning to freeze like tubes around my legs. The crowded plane cabin, though intact, was filled with the five victims, the EMT and his equipment, so there was no room inside for me or my camera and recorder. It was the early days of video tape and the gear didn’t take very well to the cold. I knew the rescue teams behind us would take a while to arrive (more than three hours in fact) and I needed to keep the recorder warm to shoot the evacuation of the survivors and interviews. I hollowed out a shelter in the snow, below the wing, and waited; huddled with the recorder, held close against my body, under my coat. Over the wind I thought I could hear voices singing Christmas songs from within the broken fuselage. It was a very long, cold day, but one with a wonderful, joyful Rocky Mountain Christmas ending.