Posted by: harrisonjones | October 11, 2017

Real Life, Real Men, Real Heroes

 

At approximately 7:45 pm on December 4, 1978, Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 was forced down on Buffalo Pass, Colorado at an altitude of 10,500 feet. Within minutes, Denver Air Traffic Control notified the U.S Air Force Mission Command Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois that the airliner was down somewhere in the mountains. At about 8:05 pm the Colorado Wing of the Civil Air Patrol was alerted, and thus began one of the most daring and successful search and rescue missions in that organizations long history. The Rocky Mountains represent a formidable obstacle to search and rescue on a good day, but this night a howling blizzard raged across the region to add to the challenge. The mission was accepted by a determined group of selfless men who would not be denied the opportunity to help their fellow man.

Sonny Elgin was assigned as mission coordinator and began gathering resources. Jim Alsum was assigned as ground search and rescue team leader and began rallying his team and loading equipment. Jim’s two sons, Jerry and Dan, volunteered along with Don Niekerk and Rick Hopp. Harry Blakeman brought his communications expertise to the team along with all his personal radio equipment. The group formed a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles, ignored the wind, the snow and icy roads, and headed west out of Denver. Meanwhile, a gentleman named Dave Lindow had volunteered himself and his snow cat to aid in the search and headed east out of Steamboat Springs. He was accompanied by Ed Duncan who volunteered his flatbed truck to haul the snow cat. As fate would have it, Dave and Ed would meet the Civil Air Patrol team along the highway and join forces. Undaunted by the weather and lack of sleep, these courageous men would search through the night for Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 and the 22 souls on board. Their historic efforts are now documented in the book “Miracle on Buffalo Pass” and it was my pleasure to meet them in person at the book signing and survivors and rescuers dinner in Denver.

DINNER 1 (2)

Jim Alsum, Dan Alsum, Don Niekerk, and Jerry Alsum

Pictured above, Jim Alsum led the ground search and rescue team to find the airliner on Buffalo Pass. Don Niekerk and Jerry Alsum were members of the four-man snow cat team who initially found the crash site and rendered aid to the survivors. Dan Alsum soon arrived at the site by riding a snowmobile up the mountain to join the rescue.

 

Dinner 3 (2)

Harry Blakeman and Sonny Elgin

Harry Blakeman and Sonny Elgin enjoy dinner and remember the long night on Buffalo Pass. Sonny served as mission coordinator and rallied all necessary resources to effect the rescue. Harry maintained communications between the search team and CAP in Denver. He also stayed in radio contact with Colorado State Patrol, County Emergency Services, and road crews to clear a path for ambulances. 

 

Dinner 10

Jon Pratt and Dave Lindow

Dave Lindow, pictured on the right, discusses the rescue with passenger Jon Pratt. When Dave heard about the crash, he volunteered himself and his privately owned snow cat to help with the search and rescue. After hauling the snow cat over the icy mountain roads from Steamboat to the east side of the Park Range, he joined the Civil Air Patrol team in the search effort. When weather and terrain dictated that the only way to continue the search was in the snow cat, Jim Alsum assigned three of his team members to go up the mountain with Dave driving the snow cat. Jerry Alsum, Don Niekerk, and Steve Poulson from Rocky Mountain Rescue, joined Dave and just before dawn on the morning of December 5, 1978, the four men found the wreckage and the survivors. Jon Pratt was the first passenger they saw standing in waist deep snow and waving his arms to get their attention.

Dinner 4

Don Niekerk and Rick Hopp

 

When Don Niekerk and the initial rescue team found the airplane on Buffalo Pass, they radioed the base camp, “We have survivors.” Jim Alsum immediately sent Rick Hopp and Dan Alsum up the mountain on snowmobiles with additional equipment to render aid and help evacuate the survivors. The two men followed the snow cat’s trail in the blowing snow and pre-dawn darkness to find the crash site. The trip covered thirteen miles of rugged terrain. Both men had EMT training as did Jerry Alsum and Don Niekerk. Not only did they help with initial medical treatment and triage, they also helped dig Gary Coleman out of the cockpit and get him into a warm down casualty bag to save his life.

Dinner 6 (2)

Dan Alsum and Ron Plunkett

 

Dan Alsum enjoys a lighter moment with Ron Plunkett. Ron was Gary Coleman’s close friend and fellow pilot. When Ron heard about the crash, he joined Gary’s brother Don and left Boulder headed for the crash site. They drove through the blizzard all night and arrived at the base camp just before Dave Lindow brought the first survivors down from Buffalo Pass. They assisted medical personnel prepare patients for transport and waited to hear of Gary’s condition. When Gary arrived at the base camp his body temperature was so low his survival was in jeopardy. Ron Plunkett and Don Coleman loaded him in an ambulance headed for the hospital in Kremmling and Don crawled into the casualty bag with him to provide body heat.

WOTR 6 (2)

Jim Alsum

 

Almost thirty-nine years after the rescue of Flight 217, Jim Alsum signs copies of “Miracle on Buffalo Pass.”

 

WOTR 18 (3)

Don Niekerk

 

Don Niekerk autographs books for patrons of the “Wings over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.”

 

WOTR 19

Jerry Alsum

Jerry Alsum adds his autograph to someone’s book.

 

WOTR 58

Dan Alsum

Dan Alsum takes a break from signing books to explain the search and rescue.

WOTR 47 (2)

Rick Hopp and Harry Blakeman

Rick Hopp and Harry Blakeman autograph books at the museum event.

Dinner 21

At the reunion dinner, the rescue team stands to be recognized and receives well deserved applause from a grateful audience. They were thanked not only by the survivors, but also by the survivor’s husbands and wives and children. Words will never adequately describe the selfless actions of these courageous men and one word they will never utter is hero. However, that is the word everyone else used continuously to express their gratitude to a team of men that risked so much to simply help another human being. God bless them all.

 

 

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