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.
It was getting cool on the mountain. The boys from Alpine Rescue saw the flames and smoke and broken-up plane. They looked right and saw snapped pine trees, sawed off at perfect angles, the white wood glowing like porch lights. In a small valley to the left, it looked as if a section of the forest had been clear cut.
Less than 20 yards away, in the dimming light and hazy smoke, Steve Greene saw the remains of bodies in seats and in the center aisle of the aircraft. One wing stuck out perpendicular to the mountain’s slope and was buried under a thicket of broken tree limbs. A small fire glowed orange near the middle of a metal pile, a few feet from an engine and what appeared to be landing gear; a fireball had ripped through the wreckage earlier. My God, Putt thought, it’s like witnessing the apocalypse.
In reality, it was a smallish disaster area—a strip of land no bigger than a couple hundred square yards, a scab on the elbow of Mother Nature. John Baroch, thin with a long face and tousled hair, marveled at the site. In its last maneuver, the plane had eased into the mountain to avoide a direct hit. It was as if the pilot were attempting to ride the trees like a kid on a sled.
Near Baroch, Bob Watson scanned the damage and wondered how anyone would have been able to get out alive. Burdick, the 19-year-old mission leader manning the radio from the roadside, didn’t have any new information from the sheriff. As far as anyone knew, they were still looking for survivors. To the group of teenagers overlooking the crash, though, it was oddly quiet for a rescue.
Theirs was a daunting task. Not only were they looking for survivors, but they’d also have to do it among spot fires, thick smoke, boulders, gasoline-slicked pine needles, and pieces of broken wood that stuck out like daggers. Baroch heard an order to turn on their helmet lights and flashlights.
Brothers Mike and Kevin Dunn popped their lights on, and the yellowish glow cast shadows across the trees. Watson ordered the group into a search line about 50 feet long. They’d sweep the crash site. The line was organized with the older boys like Watson nearest to the crash. They’d need to stay straight the entire way; Watson didn’t want any stragglers. Look deep into the trees and search the ground for bodies, Watson ordered. The area was now a crime scene, and the rescue squad was careful not to get too close to the plane. Anyway, if anyone were still alive, Watson said to the team, they would be dazed and wandering far away. Someone spoke up: The force of an airplane slamming into the ground might have sent bodies into the treetops.
Putt grimaced. The last thing he wanted to do was look up. He kept his eyes toward his boots and wanted to disappear. The others began to walk; Putt moved forward about 10 feet and then stopped, afraid to move. No one looked back at him.
Mike Dunn was sure there would be at least one survivor of the crash, and he was certain he would find him or her. His brother Kevin couldn’t believe that anyone survived the impact and fire. The reality of the situation had finally hit him. How were they, a bunch of kids, going to help someone injured in a plane crash?
Closer to the wreck, the heat was tremendous and Greene felt it despite the cool evening air. Around them were scraps of metal ripped and bent like crushed soda cans. Gold helmets and shoes had spilled onto the forest floor. Watson could see the front of the plane—a molten mess, liquefied pieces of metal dripping and bubbling and already hardening like concrete onto the charred grass. A gaping hole split the fuselage into two distinct pieces; the plane’s rear was more intact. Greene scanned the mountain slope. Every time he turned around, his eyes caught the wreckage.
There were larger pieces of debris—a door, part of a wing—and fallen trees stacked like Popsicle sticks around them. As the search team made a ring around the crash, first below the site, then above it, the late-afternoon light had given way to darkness. The boys’ headlamps and flashlights gave off an eerie glow. If they were growing weary, none showed it. It was a few hours into their work, and still only part of the area had been searched. No survivors had been found.
As the others worked their way around the site, Putt remained frozen, his eyes focused on the ground. The boy was afraid to sit down on the logs felled around him, afraid of what might be under them.
And then his headlamp caught something. The black leather reflected back at him; it was a shiny square atop a charred pile of pine needles. He bent down and picked it up carefully. It was a wallet, still smooth and in nearly perfect condition. The boy stretched his thin fingers out and opened it. He saw a photo: a man and a woman and kids. Kids, just like him. A family, just like his.
Putt gulped for breath. His chest tightened. He felt sick. He’d come here to prove himself, but now he only felt fear. He dropped the wallet and wanted nothing more than to rip off his pack and run away. He thought of his fellow teammates: Please come back soon. Don’t leave me here.