Rocky Mountain News

HomeNewsLocal News

Flight 217: A miracle on the mountain

Published December 3, 2008 at 11:31 p.m.

Portrait of Matt Kotts holding a piece of his stroller at Steamboat Springs Airport.

Photo by Chris Schneider

Portrait of Matt Kotts holding a piece of his stroller at Steamboat Springs Airport.

Matt Kotts was on his mother's lap when Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217, with ice-laden wings and failing instruments, slammed into a mountain 30 years ago today.

The flight was supposed to be a quick jump from Steamboat Springs over the Rockies into Denver.

That was on a good day.

But the frigid night of Dec. 4, 1978, turned very bad, before having a remarkably good - even miraculous - outcome.

Ed O'Brien, a historian with the Colorado Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, said Flight 217 is the biggest rescue in CAP history.

There were 20 passengers, including baby Matt and his mother, Marge Roosli, and a crew of two aboard the DeHavilland Twin Otter. Two people died - passenger Mary Kay Hardin, 25, of Steamboat Springs, and pilot Scott Allan Klopfenstein.

But rescue crews from the CAP, Rocky Mountain Rescue, Steamboat Springs Ski Patrol and others saved 20 people from freezing to death or dying of their injuries while stuck in the fuselage of the broken-apart airplane.

No day to be flying

There were many contributing factors to the crash, including heavy ice buildup on the plane's wings.

In a May 1979 report, the National Transportation Safety Board said Flight 217 never should have taken off because of the severe weather, attributing the crash to the icing and strong downdrafts.

Klopfenstein and co-pilot Gary Coleman realized they were in trouble and attempted to turn back rather than attempt the mountain crossing.

Then they lost radio contact with air traffic controllers at Denver Center in Longmont when the plane's aerial became caked in ice. They were within minutes of being back to the safety of the Steamboat airport, but flying some 400 feet lower than they thought, when the plane's right wing clipped a transmission tower on Buffalo Pass.

Flight 217 disappeared from air traffic control radar.

Denver Center contacted the CAP.

The ground search

Among the CAP ground team members was Jerry Alsum, an Aurora Fire Department paramedic, who had been a CAP cadet since high school. His father, Jim, had helped found the ground team after one of his brothers-in-law had been killed in a plane crash in 1963.

"There were a lot of things that went right," Jerry Alsum said of the amazing search and rescue on the bitterly cold night.

The rescue crew met in Idaho Springs and traveled west on U.S. 40 toward the Buffalo Pass area, roughly seven miles east of Steamboat Springs.

They ran into Dave Lindow, who was hauling a Sno-Cat, the big machines used for grooming ski slopes, among other tasks, on his tractor-trailer. They flagged him down, and he readily offered to help.

At the trailhead at Grizzly Creek campground, a few miles east of the crash site, they quickly learned the snow was too deep for their own snowmobiles.

So several members of the team boarded Lindow's machine and they set out.

The flickering of lights between Walden and Steamboat Springs - caused by the plane striking the power pole - helped narrow the search area.

An emergency locator transmitter aboard the plane had transmitted a signal - disrupted and scattered by the power lines. But Sonny Elgin, incident commander who had hunted in the area, told rescuers to focus along Buffalo Pass.

CAP members tried to pick up the signal again with handheld locators. They found it.

Lindow had helped install power lines in the area. He "knew the west side really well," Alsum said.

Visibility was poor. Lindow guided the team on logging roads, backtracking when they dead-ended and following another and then another.

Eventually, they found the wreckage.

And then they heard screaming, said Jerry Alsum.

Rocky Mountain Rescue's Steve Paulson radioed to Jim Alsum at CAP base with three improbable but wonderful words:

"We have survivors."

To this day, Jim Alsum, 77, a retired contractor in Aurora, has a difficult time describing his feelings when he thinks about the power of that message.

"Oh man. I can't answer," he said. "It's just amazing."

Survivors take charge

Passengers Jon Pratt and Vern Bell are credited with taking charge of the initial scene. Pratt clawed away enough snow from Coleman's head to save him.

"He was suffocating," Pratt said.

Pratt, 50, now lives in Seattle. He was working for a mining company outside Steamboat Springs.

"I called this my first business trip," he said. "I was supposed to fly from Steamboat to Denver to Gillete, Wyo., to get a pickup and drive it back."

Instead, after his head cleared, he got into the baggage compartment, rifled through luggage and tossed out clothing to keep other passengers warm.

He assisted a man who was twisted under broken seats. He broke a suitcase and made a roof over Coleman to keep snow from piling up even more.

Lives changed

The crash changed Pratt.

"It's easier to keep things in perspective," he said. "You have to appreciate life. It goes away at any moment."

Marge Roosli doesn't remember anything.

"I was knocked out from impact," said Roosli, now a retired Web site operator. "I was in a coma for a few days."

But she said that when she woke up in a Denver hospital, she knew with certainty that her baby boy, Matt, who was riding in her lap, was fine.

"I just knew."

Matt Kotts, now 30, of Steamboat Springs, an electrician, pilot and flight instructor, was slightly injured when he flew off his mom's lap.

He goes up periodically to the crash site when the weather is nice enough for him to get to it. He likes the view. But it's also for the site's healing effects.

"It makes you think how lucky you are," he said. "It simplifies your thoughts. It makes you realize what's important and what isn't."

He has a few souvenirs.

"I have some pieces of the airplane at my house - part of a wing," he said. "I found my stroller up there about 10 years ago. I wiped the dirt off it. It was all rusted out. The metal is all that's left, pretty much."

Survivors will have a chance to learn more about what co-pilot Coleman calls "the miracle of Buffalo Pass" when they gather for a private commemoration this weekend, a prelude to an exhibit that will later be on display at the Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.

Back to Top

Search »