January 19, 1988
This was the day I responded to my very first incident. I was studying for an accounting quiz the next morning when I got the call.
I was studying Business Administration at a small college in a small mountain town in the Rocky’s. A dorm-mate and I thought it would be a lot of fun to learn how to rock climb and decided the best way to learn was to join the county search and rescue team. Little did I know how this one simple thought would affect the rest of my life.
It was a Tuesday night. About 9pm. There was a raging snow storm outside. When the phone rang, I was asked to report to the county sheriff’s office immediately and told to be prepared to hike into the back country in blizzard conditions.
A commuter airliner had failed to arrive at the airport and was believed to have gone down.
It was a very small airport and did not have radar at that time. So, initially we only had a very rough idea of where to start. By the time the team had assembled and been briefed, a survivor from the plane had hiked out, roughly two miles in a blizzard, to a farm-house and called 911 to report the crash.
Less than two hours after receiving the phone call, I was on snow shoes (for the first time) and hiking in with a small group of rescuers – trying to follow footprints left in the snow.
I’ll spare you most of the details…. but roughly half of the passengers on board survived. In fact, all but one walked out – literally walked out – with very minor, if any, injuries. The other half perished. One passed in the hospital a day or two later. The others were gone before we arrived – except one who died during our extrication efforts.
The cause of the crash? Pilot error.
It has been almost 20 years. I still get nervous every time I get on a plane. It was a couple of years before I would even get on a plane again. And several more before I could do it without being almost completely hammered drunk. Now, I fly every two to three weeks. I don’t drink every time, but if my flight is late boarding you can almost definitely find me in the bar. And I make sure I have my shoes on long after take off and long before final approach. Yes, the shoes are a conscious thought every single flight.
Why does this event from so many years ago still bother me so much? I have seen many, many more people killed in car accidents – and I never hesitate to get in my car every day. How is it that I can remember so many details from that night (I just Googled it and found that I had remembered the date and even the day of the week), but I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today? The memories are still just as vivid.
It seems the emotion has subsided. I am able to talk a little about it, and even write this post, without falling apart. I have pictures from the crash site tucked away in a box. I have not looked at them in years, but I know exactly where they are – I wonder if the pictures might revive the emotions.
No – Don’t think I’m up for that tonight. I have to get on a plane tomorrow…..