Back on Friday, October 2, 1970, a Martin 4-0-4 aircraft carrying 37 members of the Wichita State University football team and three crew crashed just east of the continental divide along I-70. There were only nine survivors.
A friend of mine used to be a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and back on October 2, 1970, his team was the first one to reach the crash side on the north side of the highway, almost directly across from the Loveland Ski Area. He said that when they arrived, the fire was so hot that molten aluminum was running in a stream down the side of the mountain. They helped the victims who were outside of the aircraft, but there was nothing they could do for those on the plane itself. The fire was so hot that they could not even approach the plane.
Plane crashes are not all that unusual along I-70 at the continental divide. The highway cuts through the mountain beneath the ridge of the divide and pilots who are not familiar with the area, often using the highway system as a landmark, get into trouble if they are flying too low. I-70 at the continental divide is a box canyon that requires a rapid altitude gain of almost 2,000 feet to clear the ridge and many pilots attempt to turn to buy time to achieve the altitude gain, but that does not always work. The Martin 4-0-4 “Gold” flight was a victim of this exact problem.
Fast forwards 43 years. As a part of our annual objective of hosting a full scale disaster exercise for the Colorado North Central Region Citizen Corps program, the Clear Creek County deputy emergency manager asked us if we would be willing to hold the exercise in her county and make it a plane crash. She arranged for us to use the Loveland Ski Area and helped us navigate the astonishingly painful permitting process from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land. Organizing the exercise was left up to us.
Finding a plane for this exercise was quite a challenge and is really a separate story to be told. For exercise participants, we reached out to our usual suspects, plus the local teams who would potentially respond. We were surprised that the Alpine Rescue Team turned us down because this was not the type of a mission that they would take. But we did get a lot of interest from other teams and built a very diversified response group. We had the Dakota Ridge Civil Air Patrol, Arapahoe County ARES, CERT members from Arapahoe County, Clear Creek County, Littleton, Parker and RTD, the Boulder County Medical Reserve Corps, the Salvation Army and, of course, members of OMEGA. We both hosted the exercise and had our own members take part. None of us are above training. We need it as much as anyone else.
Setup for the exercise was a little bit of a bear. Not only did we have to haul an airplane and gear up the mountain, but we also had to use human power to get it positioned at the crash site. The crash was nearly a quarter mile worth of debris, consisting of plane parts, luggage and people. And, to add flavor to the incident, we added more victims, representing the activities that people do on mountain ski slopes in the summer – hikers and mountain bikers. The debris field ended in a plane fuselage crashed into the vehicles of those engaged in weekend mountain recreation activities. It took four cars to stop the plane and added yet more injured to the scenario.
The scenario ran well. The teams worked very well together and leveraged the diverse skills that participants brought to the exercise. Early in the exercise the incident commander deployed two search teams and leaned forward with an advance medical team to stage closer to the incident site as the incident command post and incident base were a mile away from the actual incident. As it turned out, the hasty teams went too far west and south and completely missed the plane while the medical team decided to use a large clearing in the vicinity of the crash to set up their staging area and stumbled into the crash area itself. The hasty teams ultimately did arrive, having found the debris trail and followed it down the slope to the crash site.
Even though things don’t always start out as intended, the exercise participants were flexible and adjusted their response to the evolving incident. They had an opportunity to try out a variety of rescue techniques and recovered all victims from the side of the mountain.
The exercise received coverage from KUSA’s Matt Renoux and resulted in a segment on the evening news.
We are thankful to the Clear Creek County Office of Emergency Management, the Loveland Ski Area and the U.S. Forest Service for helping us put on Operation Rocky Slope and, of course, to the multitude of responders and volunteer role players who made it a success.