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.
We’re just running a little rich is all.
The plane climbed a few thousand feet and headed northwest. With Crocker giving heading directions, Skipper turned west toward the mountains. Minutes passed, and city neighborhoods, and then the suburban developments, disappeared behind them. The route loosely followed U.S. 6. Skipper maneuvered into the Clear Creek Valley, just outside of Idaho Springs, and powered down the engines. He was going to impress these kids. While the engines buzzed, Skipper and Crocker could see the highway. The plane was flying among the Rockies, not above them. As they moved west, the plane barely kept up with the rise of terrain. Strips of mountainside extended on each side of them. Players, dumbstruck by the beauty, took off their seatbelts and wandered the cabin, their faces close to the windows. They were on a sightseeing tour—at 161 miles per hour.
Toward the back of the plane, Bob Renner, the team’s 21-year-old quarterback, lounged with his friends and marveled at the sight while two flight attendants passed out sandwiches, potato chips, and apples. Glenn Kostal, one of the linebackers, was three rows from the back of the plane, seated by junior cornerback John Taylor. While his teammates milled around, Taylor nudged Kostal and pointed out the window: If I had a .22, he joked, I could shoot some rabbits down there.
At 10,000 feet—less than 1,500 feet above the highway—people on the ground below began to take notice, first in Idaho Springs, then 13 miles away in Georgetown, then from trails in the mountains. Some had to look down to see the plane. People pulled their cars over to watch. No smoke. No fire. So why was the plane so low?
Twenty-five minutes into the flight, Rick Stephens, a 22-year-old offensive lineman, thought the mass of trees outside the windows was unsettling. He got up and walked to the cockpit, where he saw Crocker and Skipper studying maps.
After Georgetown, it was less than five minutes to Dry Gulch, a piece of land about 10 miles from the Continental Divide. Skipper pointed to a mountain. What’s that elevation? he asked.
Thirteen-five, Crocker said.
They were in a box canyon, and the highway they’d been following was about to end. It looked like there was no escape. Skipper banked right, a wide swing in a futile attempt to make a 180-degree turn to safety. The turn tossed a flight attendant, and the passengers hollered. Crocker yelled to Skipper: “I’ve got the airplane.” He made a sharp left. The plane began to vibrate like a speedboat slapping water; the engines stalled. As the plane lost altitude, Crocker nosed up, and the first trees thwacked against the plane’s wings. There was a low rumble. Then darkness.
Skipper awoke to a haze of smoke. He was still buckled into his seat. His nose was smashed and bleeding; there was no skin left on his knuckles. Crocker was no longer in the cockpit. A ball of fire was advancing toward the front of the plane. Skipper blacked out.
The smell. That’s what they’d all remember. At first it smelled like unwashed socks left to rot in a gym locker. But it grew into something more. Eventually, it became stomach-turning, gag-inducing—a pungent funk, one difficult to explain in any human terms. Later, when the boys from Alpine Rescue would get together, they’d find that there was only one word to describe that smell: death.
As the Alpine crew pushed farther up the mountain on October 2, the odor wafted toward them and nearly froze John Putt in his hiking boots. The excitement he’d felt unloading gear 20 minutes ago drained from his body.
It was a rifle-straight shot uphill through smoke. The landscape grew hazy, darker, more ominous, as they ascended the mountainside. Boulders, stumps, rescuers—they all turned into shadows in the dimming light as the sun slipped behind the trees. Branches snapped and crackled as the teenagers headed up the mountain: 100 vertical feet. Two hundred feet. Putt was losing ground. His legs burned.
Baroch, a high school junior, distracted himself by repeating the contents of his pack, over and over: batteries, compass, freeze-dried food, map, water. Batteries, compass, freeze-dried food, map, water.
Three hundred feet.
Thirteen-year-old Mike Dunn couldn’t wait to hit the crest. Along with Putt, he was one of the youngest on the rescue team, another eager-to-please junior-high kid ready to prove himself to the older boys. The smoke and the smell didn’t discourage him.
Four hundred feet.
Dunn’s brother, 14-year-old Alpine rookie Kevin Dunn, couldn’t believe his luck. What kid gets to do this? he asked himself.
Four hundred and fifty. There was still plenty of ground to cover.
Greene, the college freshman, wondered if this was what war looked like. Of all the scenes Alpine Rescue had given him over the years—finding lost hikers in a blizzard, recovering bodies fallen from cliffs—this one would stay with him. He’d see this scene once more—30 years later when he was a nuclear physicist in New Mexico. His house would burn to the ground in Los Alamos, and as he’d stand among the smoldering remnants with his wife, he’d remember climbing this mountain on this day, and what he saw when he reached the crash and looked around.
No matter how bad the scene was, the boys were trained to remain focused. This is your job, Greene thought. Do it right.
As they approached the crash site, the boys funneled into a line and walked silently, one by one. They could now hear small fires crackling. Trees were scorched, bent, and broken; bolts and rivets and pieces of the plane’s wing surrounded them, like someone had tipped over a massive garbage can. Ahead, more broken trees. The teenagers inched closer to the hill, and the smell became even more intense. And then, there it was, the mangled propeller and landing gear. They paused. Greene crossed himself and began to pray.
Get out! That’s what the Wichita boys thought. Get the hell out now! Run!
Rick Stephens, the offensive lineman, had been behind the cockpit a few moments earlier, and now he was waking up on the side of a steep mountain with a cut on his forehead. Both of his legs were fractured, his hip was dislocated, and his sternum was crushed. The sky was turning black.
Fuel sprayed everywhere and doused the passengers. Taylor, the cornerback, crawled out of a hole in the aircraft, but found himself standing in a puddle of jet fuel and caught fire. So did Reeves, the team trainer. His body was badly burned. The survivors were now running on adrenaline: They started gathering others who were clawing their way out of the plane. Skipper, the first officer, regained consciousness and crawled to safety, then began pulling passengers away from the wreckage. One by one, they came: Mike Bruce, an offensive lineman. Randy Jackson, the team’s star running back. Dave Lewis, a defensive end. Others were coming.
We’ve got to move back! The plane could explode! Bruce volunteered to get help and scooted down the mountain.
Inside, the plane was a mess of broken seats: The players’ heavy, unrestrained bodies had plowed into them like they were tackling dummies. People were alive, but they were pinned between seats, struggling to free themselves. Of the passengers, nine were accounted for. Renner, the quarterback, was stuck beneath one of the seats. He freed himself and then turned his attention to three teammates. No one could move. Renner stood above his friends, his roommates, and tried to pull them from the wreckage. “Bobby!” one of them shouted to Renner, “I’m burning! Get out of here!”