STEAMBOAT SPRINGS - Forty years ago, a commercial airplane crashed on Buffalo Pass east of Steamboat Springs. It got caught in some weather that was not expected, and the wings iced up.
The plane was having problems climbing and ended up crashing in a snowfield. The pilot and one passenger were killed, but 20 people survived. They not only survived the crash, but also a blizzard that brought 8 feet of heavy snow, 40 mph winds and 50-below-zero temperatures.
They made it through a brutal night before rescuers found them the next day. They knew it was a miracle they were alive.
Forty years later, it was a beautiful fall day on Buffalo Pass. The weather was warm, the sky blue and the fall colors golden. Dozens of people were hiking through a rocky field, but they were not really there to enjoy the views. They were there to remember.
The co-pilot, Gary Coleman, was there, answering questions and explaining how hard they tried to get everyone down safely. The passengers walked around and looked at some the wreckage that’s still there. Many of them had not seen each other since that night.
Forty years ago, it all started out so routinely. The pilot, Scott Klopfenstein, and Coleman were preparing for their flight back to Denver.
They were flying Rocky Mountain Airways flight 217 and had made the trip so many times. It was a mostly clear evening. The moon and the stars were out. They began the 50-minute flight to Stapleton Airport without any issues.
Then they hit a mountain wave and it started snowing. After a short time, ice started to build on the wings, and the aircraft was having trouble getting to the altitude they needed.
The pilots decided to turn back to the Steamboat Springs airport. They never made it.
Forty years later, Coleman explained how they notified air traffic controllers they were having issues. They were battling the conditions through the clouds in heavy snow.
Suddenly the wing clipped a high voltage transmission line and they only had seconds to react. The pilots veered away from darkness, toward the light. It turns out the light was a snowfield where the Otter Turboprop came to a stop. The snow saved lives.
The dark was the rocky side of a mountain.
Forty years ago, some commercial airliners flying over the Rocky Mountains were picking up an emergency locator transmission. A search was started, but it was difficult to get anywhere because of the blizzard.
The rescuers learned that at about the same time the plane went down, the lights flickered in Walden. They figured the plane may have hit a power line, so they followed the power lines out of Walden up to Buffalo Pass.
As morning came, they discovered the wreckage. One of the first rescuers on the scene radioed that there were survivors. “Send everything,” he said.
Coleman was buried under a pile of snow. He was severely injured, and the rescuers thought he was dead, but one of them noticed his hand sticking up out of the snow. It moved.
They dug him out and put him on a Snowcat down the mountain. They saved his life. The entire rescue operation was recorded by 9NEWS photographers Tom Baer and Harry Blackman.
Forty years later, the passengers and their families stood under that transmission line, thankful for those who came to the rescue.
It was one of the biggest and most difficult rescue efforts ever made in Colorado. They counted their blessings on a beautiful day on Buffalo Pass.