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Agencies pull together for rescue effort

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January 11, 2002

La Plata County Search and Rescue workers Ron Corkish, front, Tom MacNamara, Sabrina Motta and Jack Ballard, back, monitor rescue people in the field from a trailer in the parking lot of Durango Mountain Resort early Thursday morning.


By Jennifer Reeder
Special to the Herald

The combined search and rescue efforts of about 75 community volunteers and organizations produced a happy ending for the survivors of two aircraft crashes near Durango on Thursday.

"It was a tremendous team effort with a number of agencies and personnel all working together," said Butch Knowlton, La Plata County director of emergency preparedness.

Knowlton’s Search and Rescue team set up a command center in the La Plata County Building Department offices at the La Plata County Courthouse to coordinate the efforts of rescuers. Knowlton is the director of the county building department.

Knowlton said he called the Air Force for assistance Wednesday evening when searchers still had not found the single-engine Cessna 172.

"I knew I had survivors, and their night-vision capabilities increased our chances of finding people alive," Knowlton said.

New Air Helicopters, a local company that assists in many searches and rescues, doesn’t fly at night because of safety concerns. But when an Air Force helicopter crash-landed at about 3:30 Thursday morning, Knowlton called New Air to help transport survivors from the accident sites.

The military helicopter was grounded about eight-tenths of a mile away from the Cessna.

On the ground Wednesday night, staff at Durango Mountain Resort pitched in by running the Purgatory Village Express – the resort’s year-old high-speed six-passenger lift – to transport search and rescue crew members to Sno-Cats at the top of the lift.

The Sno-Cats, which are stored halfway up the mountain at night, belong to Bob Rule, owner of the San Juan Ski Company. Rule uses the Sno-Cats to lead advanced backcountry ski and snowboard trips from the resort.

Rule became involved with the mission at about 5 p.m. Wednesday when he learned the first aircraft had crashed.

Rule called the search and rescue team to offer his services, then took a snowmobile and a Sno-Cat driver to Strawberry Patch, the meeting place for on-site rescue workers. Strawberry Patch is a helicopter-accessible area near the crash sites.

Rule scouted the area by driving a snowmobile three miles from Strawberry Hill to the Pinkerton Flagstaff/Dutch Creek trail and then walked about ½-mile on skis with adhesive skins. When he found fallen logs and trees blocking the road, Rule called to Durango Mountain Resort employees Walter Miller and Scott Clemmens to bring a chainsaw and a bolt-cutter to the site.

"It was very dark out there, but we knew where we were going," said Miller, a communications technician at the resort.

Miller and other resort employees helped clear the trees from the path between Strawberry Patch and the landing zone near the military helicopter.

Search and rescue team members moved crash survivors out of the crash area and to a nearby landing zone. Because the military survivors were once rescuers, they had heavy survival gear to haul to the landing zones before they could be flown by New Air helicopter pilot Steve Krug to Mercy Medical Center, said Roy Meiworm, lift operations manager at Durango Mountain Resort.

Members of search and rescue teams carry gear such as tents, snowshoes, first-aid kits and extra clothing for survivors.

Perry Pahlmeyer, a volunteer with the team, described his gear as "stuff that’ll get me through the night and take care of people."

Ron Corkish was one of the 11 members of San Juan Sledders, a local snowmobile club, who volunteered in the search effort. Corkish said that Knowlton’s interview Wednesday night with Justin Kirkbride, the pilot of the Cessna, had led to an "area of probability" of the crash site. When news that the military personnel were "fairly well off" after the helicopter crash reached Corkish’s team – via radios supplied by Durango Mountain Resort – they felt they could "keep the focus on the Cessna," Corkish said.

"Search and rescue found the pilot’s footprints – that was our first big lead. When our team got there, we gave them clothing and built a big fire. We had some bonfires going up there," Corkish said.

Meanwhile, the search effort for the military helicopter got a boost when Rule was hiking uphill on skis with skins at about 4 a.m. and spotted a flare from the military crew, which led search and rescue crews to the helicopter. A nearby landing zone for a helicopter was identified, and the military personnel were moved there to prepare for evacuation.

The Red Cross pitched in by donating food and drinks for the rescue workers and military personnel who spent the night on the mountain. Temperatures Wednesday night reached a low of 24 degrees.

Roy Meiworm and Miller loaded the provisions onto snowmobiles and sped them to Strawberry Patch and the military landing zone.

"They loaded me down," Meiworm said, describing the Gatorade, candy, sandwiches, chips, fruit and coffee donated by the Red Cross.

Like all true heroes, members of the effort would take credit for their acts of bravery.

"That’s typical of Durango. People pull together," said Bob Kunkel, senior vice president of the resort.

Other key participants in the search and rescue included the Durango Snowmobile Club, Civil Air Patrol and the U.S. Air Force, Knowlton said.

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