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 around 10 p.m. when the Alpine team headed back to the makeshift base. They hiked down the mountainside in silence, and when they reached the road, the asphalt was aglow in police lights and flood lamps. Next to a small ditch, Burdick, Wood, and a few others were waiting. Watson approached. After nearly five hours of searching, he told the waiting men, the team hadn’t found anyone alive.
The group huddled for a few minutes as the rest of the team made its way down the last stretch of mountain. When Putt arrived, he’d gathered himself. The others around him didn’t seem overly affected by what they’d just seen. Putt, however, was still terrified and kept quiet. In the biggest moment of his brief existence, he’d crumbled under the pressure.
The teens met with the other Alpine adults. The older kids who wanted to stay the night could, but it wasn’t mandatory. There’d be work in the morning, perhaps to remove bodies. Burdick, Greene, and Watson agreed to spend the night there.
The kids were dismissed, and Putt found a ride home with the same teenagers who’d brought him up the mountain. It was nearly midnight when the SUV rolled up to the two-story house Putt lived in with his parents and six siblings. The front porch light was on; Putt rang the doorbell and his father let him in. Putt crept up the stairs to his room and changed his clothes. He fell into bed, exhausted, but he couldn’t sleep. As the night’s light cast shadows throughout his bedroom, Putt lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, thinking about the photo in the wallet. He felt sick again.
The boy got up and sneaked down the hallway to his parents’ room—they were both asleep when he entered. Putt lifted the edge of the bed sheets and slid in between his mother and father. He could hear their breathing, and for the first time all night, he felt safe.
By the time the sun broke and ran a trail of light through the valley, Burdick, Greene, and Watson were already up. Slowly, the government types began arriving: the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the sheriff, the coroner. Ambulances parked along the highway.
The adults confirmed to the boys what had happened: The wrecked plane above them was carrying the Wichita State football team, and they now were presiding over the worst collegiate air disaster in the nation’s history. Twenty-nine people were presumed dead. Another 11 were injured—some terribly—and were being cared for at Denver-area hospitals.
Plans were made: Burdick and Watson would remove bodies with two members from another rescue team. The four would be the only ones allowed to touch the remains. Greene would be one of the lead runners on the “litters,” light frames that held the remains and were belayed along a series of ropes that led from the crash site to the road.
A bulldozer was called in from the Straight Creek Tunnel construction site and began cutting across the forest to pick up the broken engines.
Around 8 a.m., Burdick, Watson, and Greene began the trek to the crash site. Watson was hoping the crew would not find any more body parts.