On Jan. 5 at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, the character and bravery of one man was revealed through a level of adversity that most of us hardly could conceive.
Kirk Schoenthaler, 27, is the airport operations officer who was the first person at the scene of the horrific jet crash that left one man dead and two injured. It was the quick response of Schoenthaler that many people credit for saving the lives of the two survivors.
“I doubt Kirk would admit to being a hero,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, who also was at the airport after the incident. “But he acted incredibly heroic. He put aside his personal safety and put out a fire that obviously could have killed all three passengers, and he did it by himself. Because of his swift response, two people were able to walk out of that plane.”
A SNOWY SUNDAY
It was a cold winter morning on Jan. 5 in Aspen. There was snow in the early morning hours, followed by temperatures that hovered in the low teens, with gusting winds that made it feel even colder.
Schoenthaler works out of the Airport Operations Center, located on the south side of the airport and close to the middle of the runway. He was in the middle of his usual procedures, doing equipment inspections and prepping the snow-removal equipment, when he heard the tower radio instructing someone to “go around.”
Looking up the runway, Schoenthaler saw a jet approaching the landing strip, but it wasn’t in the normal landing position.
“I saw a jet that didn’t look right,” Schoenthaler said. “It was in a nose-high attitude close to the ground, then it went nose-down and quickly dropped towards the runway. As soon as I saw that, I knew I needed to start responding and headed towards my truck. I didn’t wait for anything else.”
As Schoenthaler was heading for the Oshkosh Striker 1500 rapid-response vehicle, he saw the impact and the explosion from the crash. Witnesses reported seeing flames 10 stories high, followed by a plume of black smoke that rose even higher.
Alerts immediately went off at the operations center. Schoenthaler wasn’t alone at the operations center, but as per protocol, the first person to the Striker truck responds. On that Sunday, Schoenthaler was the first responder.
In seconds, Schoenthaler contacted the dispatch person in downtown Aspen to alert them he was responding, and then he gained clearance to access the runway.
“There really wasn’t any time for an ‘Oh my God!’ response,” he said. “I saw the incident and knew I had to get there as fast as possible, and with a fire that severe, I knew I had to put it out as quickly as possible.”
THE SCENE OF THE INCIDENT
It takes countless hours of training to become a certified aircraft rescue firefighter, and it likely was that training that saved two lives.
As Schoenthaler approached the burning aircraft, he began to react. He turned on the water and foam pumps within the Striker truck while avoiding debris from the wreckage, then plotted the best approach to apply the fire-retardant foam.
Schoenthaler pulled up within approximately 20 feet of the wreckage, activated the retardant and extinguished the flames.
“We were told that Kirk had around 120 seconds to put that type of fire out,” DiSalvo said. “Once the heat or carbon monoxide takes over, the chances for any survival drop quickly. He never let the flames get hot enough to affect the inside of the fuselage.”
When asked if he was concerned that the jet could explode, Schoenthaler shrugged at the thought.
“That didn’t cross my mind,” he said. “I had one thought only: ‘Get the fire out.’”
The Striker 1500 is a self-contained rescue vehicle that Schoenthaler didn’t have to exit to put out the fire. He used a set of joysticks to operate the turrets on the front of the truck to blow fire retardant onto the wreckage.
After he initially put out the flames, Schoenthaler had to suppress two reignitions. The next airport-rescue firefighter was close behind Schoenthaler. William “Clint” McDonough was the second responder with the responsibility of closing the runway and taxiway. McDonough kept the other air traffic out of harm’s way while helping direct the incoming emergency responders.
As other rescue agencies arrived and began to make entry into the aircraft, Schoenthaler’s responsibilities changed to protecting those responders from any possible reigniting of the fire.
“That’s when some anxiety set in,” Schoenthaler said. “All I could do was keep an eye on the jet, make sure the fire stayed out and pray for the best. I had no idea how many people were on board or any of that information. My focus was keeping the other responders safe.”
Looking back, Schoenthaler said there was no fear factor as everything happened so quickly.
“The biggest obstacle I had was trying to calm down quickly so I could think coherently and talk on the radio as calm as possible,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s normal for most people to be able to go into that heightened state, see a crash, run to a truck, respond. Your heart rate is really going. To be able to drop that down is definitely not a normal reaction for most people. I attribute that to God being able to help me out to get to that level of professionalism; to be able to react correctly and think straight.”
It’s difficult to say exactly how much time the people on board could have survived with the fire still burning, but the key point is none of the surviving victims had any thermal-related injuries.
When Schoenthaler hears the word “hero,” his reaction is subdued and modest.
“Obviously this is what we’re trained to do,” he said. “It’s great to fall back on our training and accomplish something good. I didn’t do anything outside of what I was expected to do. To me, it was the people responding around me that I would call heroic. They did their jobs flawlessly and kept those two people alive.”
Ironically, that description fits Schoenthaler’s actions perfectly.
“Kirk responded as per our protocol, but it was still impressive how fast he did it,” said Dustin Havel, the assistant aviation director at the airport. “We really can’t ask for anything more from one of our responders. In my opinion, he was definitely a hero on that Sunday.”
“I had one thought only: ‘Get the fire out.’”
Operations officer, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport