Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Reconciling the plane crash
March 7, 2012
I don’t know if there is ever a good or “right” time to tell a story like this. It was hard, some have even said “incredible” and “miraculous,” as a boy to survive it, but I think it might be harder for a man 38 years later to recall enough of the details of it to make sense to him or anyone else. At the very least, though, for reasons unclear to me, I know I want to try now. No one can image how excited I was on the evening of March 1, 1974, as my family prepared for our annual ski strip to Aspen. Having finally “made the cut” to go the year before, at 7 years old, I was now a returning veteran on our squad and could not wait to hit the slopes with my Schuhmacher cousins who lived in that incredible mountain paradise.
My mother, Dineen, or “Nini” to her friends, had helped me pack and had laid out the outdoor armor that I would wear into the adventure the next day: blue jeans, white turtleneck, gray sweater and, of course, the new brown hiking boots I had begged, or rather harassed, her into buying me a month before.
Hidden behind my bravado about being the fourth child, at the end of the day I was still a mama’s boy. We had a bond that connected us in a special, indescribable way. I roomed with my 11-year-old brother, Mark, and when she came to kiss us goodnight, I thought I could see a bit of apprehension in her eyes. I thought it might be because the next morning we would be flying in a private plane for the first time. The company my dad worked for, Capital National Bank, had just bought one six months earlier. My aunt Susan Schuhmacher later told me that Mom had expressed reservations about traveling this way and would have preferred flying commercially.
A few minutes later my father, Bill, walked into the room to say goodnight and sing us “Rocky Mountain High” as he had done often over the previous two weeks as a way to get us psyched up for the trip. As I listened to the song and dreamed about the wonderful trip ahead of us, I smiled and peacefully drifted off to sleep.
Nine hundred miles away in Denver, 9-year-old Danny Schaefer was presumably as excited and I was as he prepared for a weekend family ski trip to Sunlight Mountain in Glenwood Springs. Getting away from the big city for a ski trip was the highlight of Danny’s year. As he dozed off to dream about the fun ahead of him, he thought about his favorite toy plane and smiled.
The alarm clock went off at 7:30, and I sprang out of bed. Showtime! After a quick breakfast with my other two older siblings, Billy and Ellen, the six of us piled into our big orange station wagon and headed to Houston’s Hobby Airport. My baby sister, Paula, was staying behind with my grandparents. As we pulled up next to the shiny, new, orange-and-white Mitsubishi turbo prop, my excitement reached fever pitch, and I became determined to sit in the co-pilot’s seat when we took off. This train of thought was interrupted suddenly by my 14-year-old brother Billy’s declaration that he would be the one sitting in that spot at takeoff. Although I was completely intimidated by my huge, supremely athletic older brother, I somehow managed to negotiate a deal with him where I would sit in that coveted position as we landed in Aspen. After my mother lined us up for a quick picture to capture the monumental moment in front of the private plane, we boarded it and settled into our seats. Mark and I ended up in the rear while Mom, Dad and Ellen took their places in the middle. The pilot, Bernard Gallaher, and of course Billy were in the front.
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The three-hour flight was unfolding as unremarkable as possible for a family traveling for the first time in a private plane to a magical winter resort they adored when Bernard received a weather report that didn’t look great. He decided to bypass a scheduled fuel stop in Albuquerque in order to beat a storm bearing down on the Central Rockies. This would prove to be both a blessing and a curse as the rest of the events of that day unfolded.
For reasons unexplained to this day, a flight plan was not filed. The ride started to get a little bumpy as we began to descend into what we thought was Aspen. Unbeknownst to us at the time, although Bernard was an experienced pilot with more than 10,000 hours of flying, only a small portion of those hours had been in the mountains. Incredibly, he was off course by 40 miles from our assumed route into Aspen.
Excited that we were almost there, I got up from my seat in the back and walked to the co-pilot’s seat to switch places with Billy. I asked him to move, and with tension that you could cut with a knife, he told me “No” and to get back to my seat. I did as I was told, and as I walked dejectedly back, he made a joke about how our flight was similar to the book “Alive,” which was just out. My father did not find this amusing and told him to keep quiet. I returned to my seat in the left rear of the plane and forgot to secure my seatbelt. As I stared out the window, a ski area came into view below. Ah, Aspen – almost there. Soon this terrible plane ride would be over. Only it wasn’t Aspen – it was Sunlight Mountain, and we were running on fumes because of our missed refuel stop. This ride was about to turn into a nightmare.
It was 3 p.m. Danny and his older brother David were riding the chairlift up Sunlight Mountain for one more run before the mountain closed for the day. Out of the corner of his eye, Danny spotted a small plane flying low and fast up the valley to his right. He was mesmerized as he followed its path. He hadn’t seen a plane for a couple of days, which was an eternity for a plane lover like he was. Danny was fascinated as he watched it move through the blustery sky.
The chairlift reached mid-station. Danny exited quickly to the right so he could continue watching the plane. David skied up next to him and asked what run he wanted to go down when Danny’s eyes appeared to pop out of his head. The plane had disappeared into a muddled puff of snow on Williams Peak, less than a half mile across the valley from where he stood. He had seen it clearly. There was no doubt in his mind what had just happened. He quickly turned to David and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Did you see that?”
“What?” David said.
“That plane just crashed … across the valley!”
“Yeah, right,” David muttered. “You and the planes again.”
But Danny was insistent, so they decided to ski down to the bottom to find their father and older brother Doug and figure out what they needed to do next.
My attention was diverted from the sight of the ground rising on the left side of the aircraft by my mother screaming, “Oh my God! We are going to crash.” My first thought was that this couldn’t possibly be happening. Next was the horrible sound of the plane tearing through the trees. I remember the sound and strange sensation of sliding roughly across the snow. Then blackness.
When I regained consciousness, I didn’t know if it was dusk or dawn. I let my eyes adjust for a minute to the diminished light. I was lying on the left side of the fuselage. The plane was split in half about four feet from me. I looked out at the surreal sight of pine trees and cold mountain sky. I tried to assess the situation. Wreckage was strewn around me. I was alive and in one piece, even able to move my legs and arms.
I looked across to the other side of the plane and saw Mark with a dreadful look of pain in his face. He was bloody and pinned beneath a set of seats. In recognizing each other, we both cried. It was a combination of fear, pain and, yes, relief. I got up and positioned myself next to him to see if I could free his anchored legs, but they were solidly pinned in place. No matter how I tried, it was useless. I huddled next to him, and then my eyes focused on the most horrifying thing any child could imagine. My mother’s limp body was lying over Mark’s feet. I looked away quickly, pretending that I had not seen her there, as if that would make the scene untrue. What in the world was I supposed to do now? Where was Dad? Surely he could help me, like he always did. The center of my entire world was lying there, lifeless. Worst of all, there was nothing I could do about it.
This woman, who had shown me more love than anyone in the world, could not possibly be gone. It just couldn’t be true. I found a couple of parkas and covered the three of us up. Mark and I huddled and cried and hoped against reason that these horrible circumstances were only a bad dream.
At the base of Sunlight Mountain, Danny and David located their father, Dr. John Schaefer, and their older brother Doug. Danny hurriedly relayed his story to them and had to catch his breath several times before finishing. At last he blurted out, “What are we going to do?”
Dr. Schaefer turned to David and calmly asked, “Did you see anything?” He replied honestly, “Nope.” That was the end of that. Danny could not believe what was happening – or rather not happening. Dr. Schafer replied that he had seen the plane, too, and it looked fine to him. “Are you sure it just didn’t disappear over the horizon?” he asked.
David and Danny decided to take another run. As they rode up the lift, Danny started to cry. He couldn’t believe what had just happened.
It was pitch black when I was awakened by what sounded like a low-pitched growl. My adrenaline flowed. I became completely alert at the terrifying thought of some kind of animal prowling outside the wreckage. Was it a bear? Was it a wolf? I had no idea. All I knew was that I was scared.
The growling morphed into a groan, which continued for several minutes, causing great confusion in my 8-year-old mind. Perhaps this isn’t an animal, but what could it be? Could it be a person? If so, who? If only my dad were here to sing me to sleep. His voice always calmed my fears. As I contemplated various scenarios sitting there in the dark, I began to realize that it must be my mother making the mournful sound. My heart sank to the lowest depth of the entire ordeal. Was she alive, and could I save her? I was utterly helpless in the inexperience of my young age and paralyzed by fear of the hopelessness of the situation. I covered my ears and cried. I just wanted that horrible sound to stop.
If only Dr. Schaefer had listened to Danny and alerted officials, perhaps my mother could have been saved. I will never know the answer to that question. Since that day, I have made a concerted effort not to allow my mind to drift in that direction, not to dwell on how different my life would have been.
Sunday morning came with a tremendous snowstorm barreling into the area. The Schaefer family prepared for another day on the slopes. Danny had barely slept as his mind poured over what he had seen and what the reaction had been by his family. How could they not believe him? Were there any people still alive on that plane?
As they readied themselves, the sound of the Civil Air Patrol planes could be heard overhead, and the family realized that something horrible had happened. Danny’s eyes lit up as he looked toward his father.
“I told you I saw something, Dad!”
Dr. Schaefer immediately began to process the consequences of his actions and contacted the authorities.
The Glenwood Springs police determined that Danny was a credible-enough witness to warrant an interview. Maddening to think about now, they were so busy with the search operations that they couldn’t get anyone over to interview him until that afternoon.
To say I was in survival mode when I woke up Sunday morning, March 3, would be a gross understatement. The image of my mother’s body lying at my feet is forever seared into my memory. She was lifeless now after passing in and out of various states of consciousness during the night. To have the rock of my world lying there, never again to take care of me, was the most hopeless feeling that words can never describe. To compound the heart-wrenching misery, I had to wonder, Where was Dad? Ellen? Billy? I got up and started to look for them in the 10-by-10 cubicle of debris, which had become my world.
Ellen and Dad had been sitting next to Mom during the flight. So where were they? And Billy, what had happened to him after we fought for that co-pilot’s seat? Was that, ironically, his last selfless act? I will not know in this life. However, I am convinced that I would not be here today had he moved for me.
I felt like a cat that had used one of its lives. My mind raced in confusion as I tried to decide what to do next. Should I go for help or hunker down and take care of Mark? He was down in spirit and frighteningly quiet now. The heavy snowfall made it impossible to flag down what I supposed to be search planes. There was little chance of them spotting us under the fresh blanket of snow.
Summoning the courage to look at my mother’s body again, I knew for certain that she was gone. There was nobody left to help me make the decision as to what to do next. I covered her head with a nearby coat and switched into survival mode to save Mark and myself. We needed food and something to drink immediately. I rummaged through all the debris to see what I could find.
The tail section of the plane, which served as our new home, was in fairly good shape mainly because there had been no explosions upon impact due to the lack of fuel in the tank. I considered the possibility of walking for help but was convinced that was a bad idea when I took one step out of the plane and sank up to my waist in snow. This scared the crap out of me. I flailed to get back to the relatively safe confines of the fuselage. My entire body was freezing, but I especially noticed it in my hands and feet.
Based on what I now know about The Colorado mountains in March, I would guess that the temperature had dropped into the 20s the night before, and the clothing I scrounged together had provided minimal relief. My feet physically hurt. I began to lose sensation in my hands as I spent the rest of the day searching for food and clothing to keep Mark and me as nourished and warm as possible. My right hand was becoming a real issue due to the rope bracelet I was wearing. It was cutting off my circulation, but my hand was too swollen to remove it. I felt uncoordinated trying to pick things up and had to resort to using my left hand more, which was equally awkward. It was later determined in the hospital that my left arm was broken. Periodically I could hear the sound of what I had now convinced myself to be search planes. However, it may have been the constant growl in my stomach. Regardless, the snowstorm was too great for anyone to spot us. This was another of the more trying moments of the whole ordeal.
I was starving and freezing. As the early symptoms of hypothermia set in, I began to fantasize about my life back in Houston. Mark was weak and getting worse. There was little I could do but try to lift his spirits. We hadn’t had a real meal since lunch the day before, and my instinct to find food kicked in. I found bags of peanuts and chips and devoured them with Mark, who was equally hungry and probably twice as scared given his complete vulnerability by being immobilized. I found a few small bottles of liquor and downed them, not realizing the detrimental effect they would have both mentally and physically. All I knew was that it was liquid and I was parched. I ate handfuls of snow to soothe the burn caused by the liquor, not realizing this was physically taxing my body as well. About 15 minutes later, as the booze began to affect my central nervous system, things got really dicey.
I started seeing things. No longer daydreams of Houston, I would have sworn that I actually saw the brick wall of my best friend Brian Breen’s house just to the left side of the fuselage. It was only 10 feet away. It was like I was playing in his driveway. Suddenly I could see him and his brothers right in front of me. I stepped forward to join them and met the frozen reality of the harsh, deep powder snow outside. There was no playground. This must be the resting place of Ellen, Billy and Dad.
The police finally arrived to meet with the Schaefers around 4 p.m. They interviewed Danny for about an hour. It was determined that he was probably the best shot at locating the downed plane. They arranged to pick him up the next morning, Monday, at 7 a.m. so he could try to lead a search helicopter to our location.
Danny was excited to be going in a helicopter for the first time. More importantly, Danny was glad he would finally get the chance to help. His father was agonizing about the decisions he had made up to that point.
Danny was awakened by the alarm at 6:30 the next morning and was soon on his way to rendezvous with the police and mountain-rescue teams. Their first thought was to get him in the air in the rescue helicopter so he could visually point out where he had seen the plane go down. However, his excitement waned as the helicopter lifted off and his certainty about the location decreased. After an initial pass over Sunlight Mountain and the spot where he thought he was standing, he got confused. How could he not recognize the spot that had been embedded in his thoughts for the past two days? Everything looked so different from above. After a couple of passes, the suggestion was made that perhaps he would be better oriented if he stood again on the ground in the exact spot from which he had seen the crash.
The helicopter landed, and he was quickly shuttled to a nearby snowcat driven by Garfield County Sheriff Ralph Baker, another cool first for Danny, as not many boys get to ride in snowcats. The sun was shinning on this beautiful bluebird day. As the cat began its slow ascent up Sunlight Mountain, Danny began to get nervous about locating the crash site again. At mid-station, while the rescue helicopter hovered overhead, Danny walked to the spot on the ski hill he would forever remember. With the sheriff standing next to him holding a walkie-talkie, Danny confidently pointed across the valley toward Williams Peak. The direction was radioed to the rescue team hovering above. The helicopter zoomed across the valley as Danny held his breath and hoped for the best.
I woke Monday morning freezing and starved. How had I made it through another night? It seemed impossible. I began attending to Mark, who was dangerously weak now and pale as a ghost. I scrounged for the last few bits of food that I had found the day before. I ate handfuls of snow to quench the bitter thirst in my mouth. My right hand was swollen to the size of a softball because the circulation had been cut off by the rope bracelet I had worn for what seemed like my entire life. I could not feel my toes. Although I had no idea what frostbite was, I was acutely aware that something was terribly wrong.
The thought of never getting out of this frozen prison crept back into my psyche and tested my will to survive. I was on the verge of crying again when I heard the faint flutter of what sounded like a lawnmower. I looked skyward to witness the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – a helicopter! It slowly approached and then hovered directly over us. I screamed and waved as I exclaimed to Mark, “We are saved! Saved! I see a helicopter!” I wanted to celebrate with Mark and reassure him that everything would be all right now. I begged him to hold on a little longer.
Within half an hour a mountain-rescue team, led by Donnie Strough and Buck Brown, trudged up the hillside on foot to our location. This advanced team began the rescue process. I was given water and food, something called a space bar, which I had never eaten. I devoured them without thinking that what I was eating was a completely foreign substance. The next thing I knew, I was on a sled moving toward a waiting helicopter. I shouted my only worry over the noise and confusion: “What about Mark?” The rescuers assured me they would get Mark out. They promised he would be right behind me. Now it was my turn to ride in a helicopter. An inexplicable sense of calm mixed with excitement came over me. We lifted off.
“You’re a hero, Danny,” was the message relayed back to the ground. “We’ve got two survivors.” Danny was overcome with humility and relief about what he had done. He was not crazy after all. The plane had come to rest just where he remembered it. He would not realize the full impact of what he had done until many years later.
Looking back over the 38 years since these events unfolded, I realize now more than ever how lucky I am. Thanks to my awaiting extended family in Aspen, the Schuhmachers, my life began again as they took Mark, me and our baby sister, Paula, into their home and made us part of their family. A living guardian angel, a boy about my own age that I had never met, saved my life.
My mother’s mother, Paula, or Mommy Too, would say when things looked bleak, “The lord has given us so much more than he has taken from us.” Even considering how much was taken from me in this tragedy, I still believe those words.
Danny saved me so I could go on to marry the girl of my dreams and to have four wonderful children. I resettled back in Aspen in the fall of 1998 after spending 18 years on the East Coast for schooling and work. It was like coming full circle, and I feel that I am now where I was meant to be.
I am gradually putting the pieces of this puzzle called my life together. I felt for a long time that the corner piece would be found in tracking down Danny. It was not an easy task due to the time that had passed since the accident. But, thanks to persistence and friends at the Aspen Police Department, I was able to locate Danny in March 2011. I had to personally thank him for saving my life.
I met Danny in October for the first time in Phoenix. It was a watershed meeting filled with sadness and joy as we recounted those childhood events that shaped our lives so deeply. There is little doubt in my mind that from this encounter we will remain lifelong friends.
If I could go back and rewrite that defining chapter of my life, I am sure my tangled emotions would tempt me to do so. Instead, I hope that I could rely on my experience of the 38 years since then to firmly remind me not to even pick up the pen. The accident will, of course, weigh heavily on my mind for the rest of my life. I only have to remember where my path off of that mountain has led to know that Mommy Too’s words are ever so true.