ASPEN - A woman who was rescued in the Aspen backcountry after a tragic airplane crash 34 years ago recently gave Mountain Rescue Aspen a significant donation to build a new headquarters and training facility on Main Street.
Lynda Cameron presented the donation and her thanks to a core group of Mountain Rescue Aspen members on Nov. 29 - the anniversary of her rescue - in a ceremony that didn't leave a dry eye in the house, according to a person who attended.
A statement issued by Mountain Rescue Aspen didn't disclose the size of the donation. Multiple sources said it was in excess of $1 million. Cameron, an Oklahoma City businesswoman who owns a second home in Snowmass Village, wasn't seeking personal acknowledgment for the contribution, Mountain Rescue Aspen said. Instead, she was making the gift as a broader thanks to the rescue organization.
"I wish to be an ambassador for all those who did not have the chance to thank Mountain Rescue Aspen themselves," Cameron said in the statement.
The crash of a private airplane on Nov. 27, 1977, killed Cameron's father, C.B. Cameron. The pilot and five other passengers stayed two nights in the backcountry and were probably lucky to survive, according to Dick Arnold, a former Aspenite who was the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport manager at the time of the crash. He was also a member of Pitkin County Air Rescue and Mountain Rescue Aspen.
The Cameron family's private airplane departed the Aspen airport at dusk on Nov. 27 and encountered a heavy snow squall at takeoff, according to Arnold. The aircraft immediately encountered trouble. Part of the landing gearing was knocked off when it struck a fence post near the end of the runway, he said. It had to be flying incredibly low as it passed Shale Bluffs. Communication with the plane was lost shortly after takeoff.
The pilot apparently became disoriented and flew up the Brush Creek drainage, toward Snowmass Village, according to Arnold. The plane made its way into the treacherous terrain around Mount Daly, Capitol Peak and Mount Sopris when it struck a ridge and crashed.
Arnold recalled that the plane hit a lower ridge between Haystack Mountain and Mount Sopris. The aircraft would have cleared that ridge if it was 10 feet or so higher, but then it would have smacked head-on into the steep wall formed by the ridge between Capitol and Sopris.
"They just flat lucked out," Arnold said. Hitting the steeper wall almost certainly would have killed all seven occupants, he said.
Arnold said he was informed by the airport control tower that evening that there was a likely downed plane. A limited air search was started that night.
Arnold put out a request on the radio for anyone in the Aspen area with information about anything unusual involving an aircraft to report it. A woman from Snowmass Village reported the next day that she heard a plane going low over her house during a snowstorm. That shifted the focus of the search, Arnold said.
Ground teams, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters searched in vain for the wreckage on Nov. 28.
In the Mountain Rescue Aspen statement, Cameron recalled what happened that day.
"My brother's friend Charlie began walking around and followed a creek downstream. He had no success and spent that night out in the frigid conditions and then continued on the next day and was spotted that afternoon," Cameron said. "He was able to help direct the helicopters towards the crash site.
"My friend Karen began her walk out on Tuesday morning when Charlie hadn't come back. She was found by the helicopter in a clearing. It was quite a rescue. Once they found us, the helicopter had nowhere to land and the entire recovery operation was carried out raising and lowering people and equipment on a cable."
Arnold was the rescue leader for the mission. He said he will never forget his first encounter with Cameron, then 15 years old. She was sitting in the wreckage of the plane. Arnold and other rescuers were lowered down to the site and scrambled to provide aid.
"There was this little girl, and she looked at me and said, 'My daddy's dead,'" Arnold said. He tried to comfort her and assured her the group was safe.
Cameron's mother, JoCarol, and her brother, Bill, also survived the crash, as did the two family friends who walked out. JoCarol Cameron suffered severe frostbite to one leg. The pilot was injured but also survived. Arnold said C.B. Cameron likely died on impact.
The wreckage was found because of the two survivors who took off seeking help, Arnold said. He himself flew in the general area of the crash site but wasn't able to spot anything in the vast, snow-covered forests and hills. The crew of one of the helicopters ultimately spotted the footprints of "Charlie" and realized they were fresh tracks. They located him and took him to the hospital, and then other rescuers followed the tracks by air to the crash site.
The rescue of the Camerons and the pilot from the wreckage occurred late in the afternoon of Nov. 29.
If the six people who survived the crash had been forced to stay out a third night in the frigid temperatures in their weakened state, they might not have made it, Arnold said.
The rescue exemplifies the team effort so critical to Mountain Rescue Aspen's action, he said. One important lesson for the public is that if the organization requests information, provide whatever you can, even if it seems insignificant, he added.
Arnold, who now lives in Telluride, said he and Lynda Cameron, now 49, have stayed in touch, off and on, over the past 34 years. He helped put her in touch with current Mountain Rescue Aspen members. The talks led to the financial gift specifically to build a new, updated rescue cabin. Mountain Rescue Aspen uses a small cabin, likely built in the 1960s, on West Main Street.
The organization is entirely supported by donations and grants from the community, unlike other emergency-services groups. President Douglas Paley said Cameron's contribution is the largest the organization has ever received.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," he said. Mountain Rescue Aspen has "an incredible team, but it's an aging team," according to Paley. New, younger volunteers appear on a regular basis. The larger cabin will include a training room that will help with the education of the new recruits.
"This donation is in tribute to [Cameron's] father, for whom the facility will be named, as well as a personal 'thank you' for the long-standing history of Mountain Rescue Aspen," the statement said.