Agencies pull together for rescue effort
FAA, Air Force
probe plane, copter mishaps
Rescuer nearly lost
Air Force proves no
match for San Juans
High spirits help
crash victims survive
crashes mobilize local rescuers
January 11, 2002
|La Plata County
Search and Rescue workers Ron Corkish, front, Tom
MacNamara, Sabrina Motta and Jack Ballard, back, monitor
rescue people in the field from a trailer in the parking
lot of Durango Mountain Resort early Thursday
By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the Herald
The combined search and rescue efforts of
about 75 community volunteers and organizations produced a
happy ending for the survivors of two aircraft crashes near
Durango on Thursday.
"It was a tremendous team effort with a
number of agencies and personnel all working together," said
Butch Knowlton, La Plata County director of emergency
Knowlton’s Search and Rescue team set up a
command center in the La Plata County Building Department
offices at the La Plata County Courthouse to coordinate the
efforts of rescuers. Knowlton is the director of the county
Knowlton said he called the Air Force for
assistance Wednesday evening when searchers still had not
found the single-engine Cessna 172.
"I knew I had survivors, and their
night-vision capabilities increased our chances of finding
people alive," Knowlton said.
New Air Helicopters, a local company that
assists in many searches and rescues, doesn’t fly at night
because of safety concerns. But when an Air Force helicopter
crash-landed at about 3:30 Thursday morning, Knowlton called
New Air to help transport survivors from the accident
The military helicopter was grounded about
eight-tenths of a mile away from the Cessna.
On the ground Wednesday night, staff at
Durango Mountain Resort pitched in by running the Purgatory
Village Express – the resort’s year-old high-speed
six-passenger lift – to transport search and rescue crew
members to Sno-Cats at the top of the lift.
The Sno-Cats, which are stored halfway up the
mountain at night, belong to Bob Rule, owner of the San Juan
Ski Company. Rule uses the Sno-Cats to lead advanced
backcountry ski and snowboard trips from the resort.
Rule became involved with the mission at
about 5 p.m. Wednesday when he learned the first aircraft had
Rule called the search and rescue team to
offer his services, then took a snowmobile and a Sno-Cat
driver to Strawberry Patch, the meeting place for on-site
rescue workers. Strawberry Patch is a helicopter-accessible
area near the crash sites.
Rule scouted the area by driving a snowmobile
three miles from Strawberry Hill to the Pinkerton
Flagstaff/Dutch Creek trail and then walked about ½-mile on
skis with adhesive skins. When he found fallen logs and trees
blocking the road, Rule called to Durango Mountain Resort
employees Walter Miller and Scott Clemmens to bring a chainsaw
and a bolt-cutter to the site.
"It was very dark out there, but we knew
where we were going," said Miller, a communications technician
at the resort.
Miller and other resort employees helped
clear the trees from the path between Strawberry Patch and the
landing zone near the military helicopter.
Search and rescue team members moved crash
survivors out of the crash area and to a nearby landing zone.
Because the military survivors were once rescuers, they had
heavy survival gear to haul to the landing zones before they
could be flown by New Air helicopter pilot Steve Krug to Mercy
Medical Center, said Roy Meiworm, lift operations manager at
Durango Mountain Resort.
Members of search and rescue teams carry gear
such as tents, snowshoes, first-aid kits and extra clothing
Perry Pahlmeyer, a volunteer with the team,
described his gear as "stuff that’ll get me through the night
and take care of people."
Ron Corkish was one of the 11 members of San
Juan Sledders, a local snowmobile club, who volunteered in the
search effort. Corkish said that Knowlton’s interview
Wednesday night with Justin Kirkbride, the pilot of the
Cessna, had led to an "area of probability" of the crash site.
When news that the military personnel were "fairly well off"
after the helicopter crash reached Corkish’s team – via radios
supplied by Durango Mountain Resort – they felt they could
"keep the focus on the Cessna," Corkish said.
"Search and rescue found the pilot’s
footprints – that was our first big lead. When our team got
there, we gave them clothing and built a big fire. We had some
bonfires going up there," Corkish said.
Meanwhile, the search effort for the military
helicopter got a boost when Rule was hiking uphill on skis
with skins at about 4 a.m. and spotted a flare from the
military crew, which led search and rescue crews to the
helicopter. A nearby landing zone for a helicopter was
identified, and the military personnel were moved there to
prepare for evacuation.
The Red Cross pitched in by donating food and
drinks for the rescue workers and military personnel who spent
the night on the mountain. Temperatures Wednesday night
reached a low of 24 degrees.
Roy Meiworm and Miller loaded the provisions
onto snowmobiles and sped them to Strawberry Patch and the
military landing zone.
"They loaded me down," Meiworm said,
describing the Gatorade, candy, sandwiches, chips, fruit and
coffee donated by the Red Cross.
Like all true heroes, members of the effort
would take credit for their acts of bravery.
"That’s typical of Durango. People pull
together," said Bob Kunkel, senior vice president of the
Other key participants in the search and
rescue included the Durango Snowmobile Club, Civil Air Patrol
and the U.S. Air Force, Knowlton