Forty years ago, a plane slammed into the Rocky Mountains and killed 31 people. The rescue squad sent to find survivors was comprised of 18 teenagers, Colorado boys with something to prove to themselves and to one another. What they’d discover would haunt them for the rest of their lives.
The Suburban cruised along U.S. 6, which ran from Denver to the Continental Divide, past the old gold-mining towns of Georgetown and Idaho Springs. John Putt sat on the squad’s equipment in the back of the SUV. There was chatter up front, a crackle on the radio. Ahead, he could see a column of smoke growing as they neared Mt. Trelease, one of the smaller mountains near Loveland Pass. The teens drove until it seemed the smoke column was right on top of them. The driver pulled off the road to where a makeshift command post had been set up.
The boys raced out of the vehicle. Putt followed with his 30-pound pack on his back. He was ready. It was just past 4 p.m.
Putt could see that Burdick had a map stretched across the hood of a car. A gaggle of people surrounded him: Lindon “Woody” Wood, Alpine Rescue’s training director and head of the team’s youth program; the Clear Creek County sheriff, Harold Brumbaugh; a number of Colorado State Patrol officers; and 18-year-old Bob Watson, another of Alpine’s young leaders. They were swapping information.
Employees of the Loveland Ski Area and construction workers building the Straight Creek Tunnel—later named the Eisenhower Tunnel—saw a twin-engine propliner fly into the mountains three hours earlier. There was fire and lots of smoke. The workers ran up the highway and then hiked toward the crash, where they helped 11 victims off Mt. Trelease and got them to a doctor about 30 minutes away in Idaho Springs. Some were badly hurt; a few looked like they might die. Already, one body had been recovered at the crash site, but there had been an explosion and a fire was burning—beyond that, the information about what was going on at the scene was spotty. The Alpine team didn’t know the plane’s exact size or the number of passengers. Earlier, some survivors had told first responders there was a football team on board. At the crash site, football pads and gold helmets were strewn everywhere.
The information was relayed to Watson, who absorbed the news like an accountant. Bespectacled and skinny, with a mustache and scruffy hair, the high school senior was designated the team leader on the mission. He would be Burdick’s number two and one of the more senior Alpine members heading up the mountain. Calculated, confident, and tough, Watson was a walking contradiction—a hippie who was one of the most fastidious and safety-conscious of the Alpine members, the kid who wanted to work in medicine, but only after he spent a summer working on an oil rig in Alaska.
In all, there were 18 or so kids, many of whom were on their first mission. There was Putt and 16-year-old John Baroch—a boy who’d been hiking these mountains for as long as he could remember. There was 14-year-old Kevin Dunn and his 13-year-old brother, Mike. And there was 19-year-old Steve Greene, a devout Catholic who was studying physics at the University of Colorado Denver.
Watson lined up the teenagers along the mountainside, a rocky slope that ran a few dozen feet up then opened onto a ledge that extended into a thick forest. With their boots and packs, the teenagers looked like troops preparing to storm an enemy position. We are looking for survivors, Watson told them. Watch your step.
And then they were gone, a mass of knees and elbows up that mountain, rocks crumbling underfoot. Putt was among the last to go. He could hardly contain his anticipation. He was filled with anxiousness and something else. Was it joy? Maybe. On perhaps Alpine Rescue’s biggest day, Putt would play a role. It would be his chance to prove himself—and to prove to himself that he could hang with the older boys. That he was worthy.
Putt couldn’t wait to touch that mountain. As the other teens clawed their way toward the trees, Putt finally placed a hand on the rocky mountainside and looked up.
The Martin 404 aircraft was a 40-seater, and there were 36 people associated with Wichita State University’s football program on the plane on October 2. They were bound for Logan, Utah, and a Saturday football game against Utah State University. The players were excited to get out of Kansas, even if it was only for a couple of days—excited to see the Rockies from the air. So far, the schedule had given them one home game and two away games in Texas. The latest road trip would be another chance for the players to prove themselves on the field—especially after more than a month of practices in the stifling Midwest heat.
When the nearly 20-year-old twin-engine plane took off from Kansas, it carried 14 Wichita State starters, the head coach, team staff, administrators, wives, and boosters. N464M—its tail number—was one of two chartered planes flying from Wichita to Utah that day (a larger DC-6 jet was supposed to ferry players that season but had been damaged in a wind storm). The planes were code-named “Black” and “Gold” for the university’s colors.
The trip was straightforward: The two planes would leave Wichita, refuel at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, and arrive around 2 p.m. in Logan. The flight path would take the team on a route that looked a bit like an elongated zig-zag line, a north-by-northwest path to Laramie, Wyoming, then a turn west to Logan, in the northern part of Utah. It was hardly a straight shot, but circumnavigating the central Colorado Rockies was far and away the safest way to get to Logan. The route was favorable for Ron Skipper—the first officer in the Gold plane carrying the starters—who’d logged approximately 30 hours flying the Martin 404 and was unfamiliar with the terrain of the Rockies.
Though he only weighed 165 pounds, Skipper was full in the face, with slicked reddish-brown hair and thick glasses he was required to wear when he flew. The 34-year-old Oklahoman was also the CEO of the flight crew–leasing company, Golden Eagle Aviation, which contracted with the planes’ owner to carry the Wichita players in 1970.
Somewhere between the takeoff in Kansas and the refueling stop in Denver, Skipper told his passengers that he’d deviate from the flight plan and take the group through the mountains, maybe show them some ski resorts. The Black plane would follow the original flight path toward Laramie and then on to Logan.
As the plane refueled on the Stapleton tarmac, it exceeded its maximum-certified gross takeoff weight, an especially dangerous oversight considering Skipper’s limited knowledge of the aircraft and the revised route. Even if the plane lost 200 gallons of fuel per hour, typical for a Martin 404, the plane would remain overweight throughout the flight. And there was perhaps an even bigger concern: Neither Skipper nor the 27-year-old captain, Dan Crocker, had an aeronautical sectional chart of the new route. Skipper excused himself, left the plane, and bought a map inside the airport terminal.
In the cabin, wide receiver John Duren couldn’t wait to get in the air. The lanky 19-year-old had worked hard that off-season, running sprints, flipping tires, catching hundreds of balls. The discipline paid off: A few days before the trip to Utah, he learned he’d be riding the Gold plane with the first team. Now he was less than 24 hours from starting his first game for the Shockers. He’d never seemed happier.
Seated near Duren were Kansas state Representative Raymond King, and his wife, Yvonne. The couple had left their seven children behind in Kansas. Near them was 19-year-old Carl Krueger from Chicago, a defensive lineman who turned down an offer to attend the United States Naval Academy just because he liked the down-home feel of Wichita: To fit in, Krueger bought a cowboy hat and wore it around campus. There was 30-year-old Tom Reeves, the team’s trainer, whose wife had just given birth to their second child, a son named Brad. And there was head coach Ben Wilson, who was in his second year of rebuilding a football program that had won only a dozen games from 1964 to 1969. It would be a tough job, he knew. His crew already was off to an 0–3 start, and Arkansas and Louisville still loomed on the schedule.
When Skipper returned to the plane with a map, he set it aside and talked to the passengers. About fifteen minutes passed, and then plane was ready to go, but it was more than 5,000 pounds overweight. Skipper and Crocker fired up the propellers, and the plane lumbered down the runway. N464M finally lifted off, but it was nearly a half-mile past the usual departure point on the tarmac. It was 12:29 p.m. A puff of smoke belched from the right engine.
An air traffic controller called to the plane’s cockpit to see if everything was OK.