This article was selected for inclusion in the Best American Sports Writing 2011 anthology. It was part of Robert Sanchez’s finalist portfolio for the City and Regional Magazine Association’s 2010 writer-of-the-year.
They all heard it: the buzz of the propellers, like a swarm of angry bees flying low over U.S. 6 through the central mountains. The plane was so low that it cast a gigantic shadow across the pine-covered landscape, and made people stop what they were doing and stare. The plane went right up to where that asphalt ended and 12,000 feet of rock stretched to the sky.
That was the plane that changed John Putt forever.
It was October 2, 1970, and the perfect, crisp fall morning had given way to an afternoon of endless blue sky. A snow had fallen earlier and the tree line around Evergreen was touched with spots of white. It was one of those Rocky Mountain days that made you glad to be alive. Thank God for Colorado.
And thank God for a reason to cut class early. Wasn’t that what 12-year-old John Putt thought when that voice boomed over the loudspeaker at Evergreen Junior High School? Members of the Alpine Rescue Team, you’re needed. Now. There was a mission, and Putt was determined to be in on it.
Anticipation, excitement. That’s what Putt felt. The joy of the moment. Whatever had happened, it must have been big. The folks at Alpine didn’t call the youngest members out of class when grandma got lost hunting mushrooms in the woods. No, this was special—momentous. He could feel it.
He’d trained six months for his first call to action, for an opportunity to prove himself to the roughly 50 teenagers and adults who made up one of Colorado’s only mountain-rescue outfits. Putt had tied knots behind his back in dark closets, searched for water, slept in snow caves, hiked until his feet bled.
Putt shot out of the classroom door. He was just a kid, really, a prepubescent boy heading to…well, who knows what? Honor? Glory? Yes, that’s what it felt like to Putt—all 5 feet 3 inches and maybe 100 pounds of him, a sliver of a boy with a tuft of unkempt brown hair sticking from his head. He headed down the hallway proud, his head held high.
He pushed open the school doors. It was nearly two miles to his house, and Putt ran the whole way. It was as hard and as fast as he’d ever run before. He reached home, but no one was there. Mom won’t understand this, Putt thought to himself. He called his dad at work. I’m going on a mission, he said. I don’t know when I’ll be back.
Stay safe. That’s what Putt’s dad told him over the phone. But what did that mean? He grabbed his pack, and soon he was back on the road, running again. Three minutes, five minutes. A car passed and Putt waved it down. He hitched a ride to the Shack, the shed attached to an Evergreen church where the Alpine crew was mounting up. The last vehicles were blazing out of the lot. A National Guard helicopter had taken off. What about me? Putt asked, desperately. There was room in the back of a Suburban. Putt’s heart leapt. Hop in, someone called to him.
March 26, 1969. The thump-thump-thump of the propeller blades boomed across the Spanish Peaks northwest of Trinidad, Colorado, as the pilot lowered his helicopter onto a windblown patch of earth.
Chuck Burdick, a 17-year-old from the Evergreen-based Alpine Rescue Team, was aboard, along with a handful of other rescuers, including Alpine members and several from a search unit based in Boulder. The early-morning fog had lifted, and Burdick found himself 200 miles from home, prepared for the worst.
Sturdy with thick shoulders and blond hair, Burdick was a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver and the burgeoning leader of Alpine Rescue—an all-volunteer mountain-rescue unit founded nearly a decade earlier. Among the younger members, Burdick was an unparalleled mountaineer. Although he wasn’t from Evergreen like most of the other teenagers, he was a folk hero of sorts to the kids in the group. His technical knowledge was unmatched: He could tie any knot in seconds; he could read the most complicated topographical maps; he could rappel like a spider fetching its prey. One time, he zipped 70 feet across Bear Creek, just to show the newbies how it was done.
Burdick lived Alpine Rescue. When Alpine called in the middle of the night, his father would ring a doorbell attached to Burdick’s room to wake him up. His Toyota Corolla was a rolling rescue unit, packed with a rucksack, a sleeping bag, a tent, extra batteries, and all sorts of radios. On those nights when he left home, his parents knew better than to ask if he’d be back for breakfast.
And now here he was, flying among the Spanish Peaks on a helicopter heading toward a narrow ridge. Atop one of the peaks was a Cessna 308 that had crashed five days earlier and killed everyone aboard. The recovery squad approached the wreckage. An hour or two later, someone found the Cessna’s tail 300 feet below. Some of the men hustled down and found a gruesome scene. Burdick saw part of one man’s frozen torso. None of the remains were recognizable.
The teenager worked quietly for the next few hours, removing remains and loading them. He hiked back eight miles with the rest of the team to the dirt road where they’d parked their cars. By the time Burdick was on the road home, it was early the next morning. Six bodies, only 250 pounds of remains. The road signs zipped past. Burdick was certain it wouldn’t be the last tragedy he’d see.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
Click. The front of the plane had burned hottest, and Burdick and Watson found the first skulls. The teenagers—wearing gloves, boots taped at the shins to keep the dust out, and bandanas and ripped-up T-shirts as makeshift masks—backed away so a photographer could take a photo of the remains.
Click. The two collected bones and put them in bags.
There were remains near the middle of the plane. Some looked mummified. Burdick and Watson stopped seeing them as humans. The intense smell of death permeated the site.
Click. The pair lifted one body out of a seat. It broke apart in their hands.
Click. There was another body at the back of the plane, face down, with an arm stuck above its head, as if it were reaching out, trying to escape the danger. Watson situated himself over the body and tried to figure out how to put it into the black bag. He turned the body over and pushed the arm down. The body belched trapped air in his face.
A few feet away, Greene said prayers as he ushered the bags down the mountain. He made sure the remains didn’t bounce on the way to the ambulances. Just because their souls had gone to heaven, Greene thought, didn’t mean that these hadn’t been people a day earlier.
Nine. That’s how many people survived the crash. There were 31 dead, including the head coach, the athletic director, the state representative and his wife, the boosters, the plane’s captain, the student equipment manager. Taylor. Reeves. Those two made it out after the crash, but their injuries were too severe. Reeves’ wife left the maternity ward so she could be with her husband, who eventually died. In all, 13 children were orphaned.
Not long after the accident, the investigations and finger-pointing began. No one wanted to be responsible for the tragedy. The plane’s owner told the NTSB he wasn’t running the show—the plane was chartered by the university and the school should have taken more precautions, should have had sole authority over the flight. The university disagreed, but the agreement didn’t spell out who was in charge of the flight. The man who’d made the agreement died on the plane.
Skipper lived. The first officer told the NTSB that the school was in charge. He testified that he was taking the shortest route to Logan, that the decision to change flight plans wasn’t part of a sightseeing trip. It didn’t matter anyway, he said, because his pilot was calling the shots. The dead captain had put that plane into the ground. An “act of God,” Skipper called the crash.
In the end, Skipper would be punished: He was forced to temporarily give up his pilot’s license, and Golden Eagle Aviation lost its air-taxi certificate. The pilot-leasing business went belly-up.
The team took a vote nine days after the crash and decided they’d play the next six games with freshmen and reserves. They called it the Second Season. And so, 22 days after they lost their head coach and 14 starters, the Shockers took the field at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas. The crowd rose to its feet, and the fans stomped and clapped and cheered for their opponents. Arkansas won the game 62–0.
The Shockers would play a few more games before another news story swept them from the front pages of even their own newspapers. On November 14, 1970, a plane carrying Marshall University’s football team went down in West Virginia and killed all 75 people aboard.
August 23, 2010. The rain has just passed overhead, casting cool, gray clouds over Mt. Trelease. John Putt squirms into his pack—the litter, the massive piece of metal that unfolds into a stretcher—as he stands along a road at the mountain’s base. The pack is crammed with 400 feet of bagged climbing rope, brake plates, and other gear. All told, the metal contraption extends a foot above his head and weighs more than 80 pounds. He’ll need none of this equipment today, but he needs to feel all of it.
He scrambles up this mountain because it is what he does now to chase the ghosts from his mind. And when he goes up now and the memories still don’t go away, he returns. Again and again. Five times up Mt. Trelease. And when those memories still haunt him, he returns once more, this time with 80 pounds strapped to his back because that weight is both his punishment and his redemption.
One hundred feet.
Coward. That’s what he’d thought of himself for nearly 40 years after the crash. On that night in October 1970, he froze and he failed his teammates. And he failed those folks from Wichita State, even when there was no one alive for him to fail.
One hundred and fifty feet.
Friend. That’s what the people from Wichita State call John Putt when they ask if he can take families to the site these days. That’s what they call him when a dead player’s niece stands among that debris and shakes Putt’s hand and tells him that he must have been a brave boy to go up that night. Twelve years old. Putt does not respond. But in helping these people, he knows he is helping himself, and perhaps giving final comfort to those who died on that plane almost a half century ago.
Two hundred feet.
But until he no longer feels as if he’s let himself and others down, he will climb. He will climb until those ghosts no longer follow him back down that mountain. So on days like this, when cool air sweeps through the valley and clouds shadow the sun from the pine trees below, Putt will climb and he will suck for air and sweat will run down his face.
Two hundred and fifty feet. There is still a ways to go.
He stops along a trail and leans against a tree. Putt takes off his glasses. His eyes are red and teary. He wipes them and looks up that mountain. And then he starts to climb again, hoping that one day when he comes down, he will feel a peace he hasn’t felt in 40 years. m
Robert Sanchez is 5280’s senior staff writer. He wrote about a first-year inner-city Denver Public Schools teacher in the September issue of the magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.