Posted by: harrisonjones | May 3, 2018

Miracle on Buffalo Pass Update

Since the publication of Miracle on Buffalo Pass I have been able to contact several more passengers and rescue personnel who were involved in the rescue of Flight 217. Dennis Brooks was a passenger on the flight and has written his memories of the crash, the rescue, and his recovery. I’m grateful to Dennis for sharing his memories and I know you will find his story an interesting addition to the book.

Dennis & Kathleen Brooks

Dennis and Kathleen Brooks

 

One Very Cold, Snowy and Windy Night
By Dennis Brooks

The pain in my back was sharp and very intense, my head and face hurt, and it was really cold. My body was so cold, especially my hands and feet, and I could hear crying and moaning and even wailing like nothing I had ever experienced before. The area around me was dark except for a small amount of light coming from some of the cabin lights. How could this this be? Where was I? What had happened? Why am I in so much pain and why is it so cold? Lying there I began to wonder if I would die. No Lord, this can’t be happening to me. I have my whole life before me. Things are going great in my life. School was behind me and my new and exciting career was now getting started. I just got married four months ago and my new wife, Kathleen, is waiting dinner for me at home. What is going on?

This story was set in motion on November 30, 1978. As a young 24-year-old project manager fresh out of college with a degree in construction management and a master’s degree in construction and business, I worked for a small development company based in California with an office in Denver. On November 30th I flew from Denver to Steamboat Springs with my boss to visit two of our projects—a Safeway store in Craig Colorado which was just finishing up and a Safeway store and shopping center project that was currently under construction in Steamboat. It all started out as a typical November day in the Colorado high country. The sun was shining but the air was cool and fresh. We spent Thursday in Craig and returned to Steamboat for the evening. On Friday morning we woke to overcast skies, we visited the construction site in Steamboat, met with the company’s on-site superintendent, inspected the project and gathered the necessary information to move the projects forward. By noon the weather began to get colder. It was somewhat overcast and there were snowflakes in the air. By late afternoon it was snowing hard. We headed to the Steamboat airport to catch our flight home only to learn that due to bad weather and snowy conditions the flight had been canceled. We waited in the airport hoping to catch a later flight out only to learn that it too was going to be canceled. Evaluating our options, and not wanting to spend the weekend in Steamboat, we decided to take a company truck from the project and drive it back down the mountain to Denver. The ride back to Denver was slow as the roads were slick and icy, and the snow was falling rather heavily. After a long an arduous drive we arrived safely in Denver where my boss and I parted ways. I took the company truck and headed for Fort Collins where I lived. Having been married four months earlier, Kathleen and I were residing in Fort Collins so Kathleen could finish her senior year at Colorado State University.

My job, come Monday morning (December 4th), was to drive the company truck back up to Steamboat since it was needed on the project. On Sunday evening as I was getting ready for bed, Kathleen and I discussed the possibility of her joining me for the day. Growing up in the Fort Collins area I had spent a fair amount of time in the Colorado high country west of Fort Collins and I knew it could be a beautiful place to see following a big winter snow. I had driven from Fort Collins to Steamboat on numerous occasions to go skiing during my high school and college days, so I knew the road and the beauty of the mountains is something that we both enjoyed. This would not be a busy business day—just one of driving a truck back up to Steamboat and then flying back to Denver and driving home. After studying for some college finals and working on a paper that she needed to finish for a class, Kathleen finally climbed into bed. I awoke from a deep sleep and sat up in bed and immediately stated, “You shouldn’t go tomorrow, you need to stay here and attend your classes and finish your paper.” And with that I don’t remember any further discussion.

Morning came, and the weather looked clear in Fort Collins and was forecast to be good throughout the day except for some winds along the foothills. Knowing that the roads may not be great, and the Colorado weather was always subject to change, I dressed warmly and I headed up the mountain towards Steamboat. The drive to Steamboat was uneventful, and as I had expected the winter wonder land was beautiful as the snow glistened in the trees and all along the winding mountain roads. I arrived in Steamboat and drove to the job site. After some conversation with the project superintendent, Joe Backers, we headed for the airport. It was now about 2:00 pm and my flight was scheduled to leave Steamboat at 2:45 pm. Around 2:30 pm we learned that due to high winds the flight coming from Denver was unable to clear the mountain passes and had to return to Denver and therefore there would be no 2:45 pm flight. The next flight out of Steamboat was Rocky Mountain Airways flight 217, and it was scheduled to leave Steamboat at 4:45 pm. I was told by the airline that there was space available on flight 217 and asked if I wanted to wait and catch the later flight. I agreed and continued to wait at the terminal. At 4:45 pm those of us in the waiting area were informed by the airline that flight 217 had left Denver late and that due to high winds over the mountain passes it would be delayed arriving in Steamboat. More time passed and many of us began to question whether we might be stuck in Steamboat for the night. About thirty minutes later the airline announced that the plane was in the air over Estes Park and should be into Steamboat in about twenty minutes. After more than twenty minutes had passed a few folks who felt they really needed to get to Denver decided to drive. Forty-five minutes after that last announcement the airline announced that the flight was on final approach into the airport and we would be boarding shortly. It was now around 6:00 pm. I stood there looking out the terminal window as the plane pulled up in front of us. The final passengers deplaned along with the pilot and co-pilot. Luggage was being removed from the rear of the plane. I watched as one pilot walked around the plane. He picked up a broom and with the handle he started knocking ice off the leading edges of the wings. The plane was refueled and shortly thereafter, around 6:45 pm, luggage was being loaded into the plane and we were allowed to board. The weather currently was not too bad, however; there was a little icy rain in the air. Being one of the first to board the plane I climbing the steps headed towards the front of the plane. Since the plane had a row of single seats on the left side and double seats on the right, traveling alone, I selected a single seat on the third row from the front on the left side of the plane. Moments later the plane was full, the pilots were aboard, the co-pilot gave us a little safety spiel and then climbed into his seat and the plane was headed down the runway.

Within minutes it was too dark to see anything out the windows except for the lights on the wing next to me. Having flown this flight several times before, I was prepared for what could be a rather bumpy ride over the mountains through the turbulent air. However, this flight seemed to be rather smooth. We were in the air for quite a while and knowing that the flight was normally 45 or 50 minutes it seemed to me like we should be getting close to Denver. I was tired from a long day and was resting my head on the window at my left shoulder when I noticed the lights on the wings turning on and off. I began looking for the lights of Denver knowing that we should be very close. When the lights were on it was like driving your car with the headlights on bright into a blinding snow storm—a total white out. My assumption at the time was that the plane was coming into Denver and they were turning on the landing lights as they prepared to land.

My next recollection was what I believe to be about 45 minutes later and one of immense confusion. I woke up dazed and in pain as someone was climbing over me and pushing my legs down; my head was struggling to piece together where I was and what was happening. This guy was bleeding from a laceration to his head and he was stumbling over me trying to get to the front of the plane. It did not take long for me to realize that I had gotten on a plane, and that plane had crashed. I was not dreaming. This was real! That became very clear to me as the pain in my back was sharp and very intense, my head hurt, it was really cold, my body was cold especially my hands and feet. I reached in to my down jacket and found a pair of leather gloves, slipping them on while still trying to clear my head. I could hear crying and moaning and even wailing like nothing I had ever experienced before. Questions raced through my head and I wanted to jump up and get out of there. However, I quickly realized that I was going nowhere. From the pain in my back I knew it was broken. I was lying partly on my back and left side, against what seemed to be windows, and there were seats bent back over the top of me pinning me up against the side of the plane. Looking up, I could see the door where I had entered the plane several hours before.

My head slowly cleared of its confusion. As the pain intensified and as my suffering, as well as that of my fellow passengers, become more and more acute, I realized we were in very dire circumstances. I was helpless—utterly helpless. There was no way I could move and any movement at all caused me tremendous pain. My mind raced between my desire for the pain to end and heart ache for my wife and my family. How could this be? I was the athlete; I was the president of the Jr. group of the Colorado Mountain club. I was in great shape physically and I had climbed and repelled down the sides of mountains. If anyone should be able to do something it should be me. But that flat out wasn’t happening! So, in that moment of great hopelessness I only had one option left and that was to pray! And pray I did. I prayed hard and I prayed out loud. I wanted to live! I didn’t want to leave my wife a widow at 22 years old. I wanted to see my family again. But oh, the pain in my back was intense, and the cold was numbing to the bone. I could also feel that my face and lips were swollen and my right elbow and right ankle hurt.

I then realized that someone was up and moving about the cluttered cabin. I could hear people cry out as someone else stepped on them. I heard shouting in between the crying and suffering. This seemed to me to be a scene right out of hell itself with so much suffering, crying and torment. Then I heard some talking and someone opened what seemed to me to be the rear door of the plane. They began dropping in clothing from some of the luggage that they had retrieved. Lying beneath the opening I was able to grab a sweater or shirt and I tucked it around my legs. Then a pair of pants fell in on me and I took them and held them over my head and chest, breathing into them, trying to get warm. In the dim light that was emitted from the exit signs, I was only able to see a very small portion of the plane. Most of what I could see was the rear door above me and the rear bulkhead to my left. Struggling to look back towards the front of the plane, I could see that seats were strewn all about the cabin, and people were laying on top of seats and on top of each other. Several folks huddled in groups trying to keep warm. It seemed like most everyone was to the front of the plane behind my back and/or down at my feet. Later, I came to realize that there was also someone next to me, between me and the back of the plane, but they were quiet and not moving around. I later learned that this was Mary Kay Hardin who did not survive the crash.

The night passed on slowly as the wailing and moaning and suffering continued. I lay there feeling so helpless and trapped. The cold was so numbing, it would have been so easy to just give up and give in to the cold and pain. From my previous mountain training and camping I understood it was important for me not to go to sleep. I knew that hypothermia was a real possibility and if I let myself sleep I may never wake back up. So, I continued to pray. “Lord please help someone find us. Please be with my wife and comfort her and my parents and the rest of my family as they learn what has happened to me. Lord save us from this awful situation and direct rescuers here to us quickly. Please Lord Please!”

There were some very strange moments during the night in between the continual crying, moaning and suffering. There was a moment when someone started to sing the Doxology and although I could not see the other passengers it seemed to me that besides me, many others joined in the singing. Then as quickly as the singing started it was over and replaced by the intense sounds of suffering people. I remember someone crying out, “What time is it?” I happened to have a watch with hands and numbers that glowed in the dark and I called back “2:00 am.” It seemed as if hours and hours passed and again someone asked, “What time is it?” Looking again at my watch I could only report that it was, “2:10 am.” This routine happened several more times as the time creeped ever so slowly through the cold and seemingly endless night.

With the approach of dawn in the early morning there was a renewed since of hope mixed with desperation. I laid there waiting and hoping help would arrive soon. Because of my position being trapped under the seats, and with my back to most everyone, I was unaware of what was happening with other passengers, but I could sense that their suffering was continuing as was my own. Then there was a call for everyone to, “Be quiet.” We all could hear an engine of some type and the minute we heard it we all began to shout hoping we would be heard. Within a few minutes there was some acknowledgement that we had been found! “They found us! They found us!” The sound of the engine became louder and louder as the rescue team closed in on our position. With the realization that we had indeed been found, my excitement was uncontrollable. My mouth was so dry that my tongue just stuck to the sides of my mouth or lips. The huge release of stress caused me to choke on my tongue and vomit, and I nearly passed out. I was so tired and in such pain, but now there was hope.

It was now about 5:45 am and new calmer voices could be heard, folks were starting to move around. In my state of mind, knowing that we had been found and that we were going to be rescued, I relaxed and drifted in and out of consciousness. The pain was so intense, but the cold had also numbed me to the bone and all my senses were dull and fuzzy. It seemed to take forever for them to get to me as they shuttled other survivors out of the plane into snow cats and down off the mountain. By now most of the other passengers had been removed from the site and taken away. I was one of the final passengers to be taken out of the plane. The seats that had pinned me down against the side of the fuselage had to be removed before they could slide a back board under me, strap me down and pull me through the wreckage. It was now mid-morning and I was finally loaded in to the snow cat for the trek down the mountain. I remember the ride being extremely painful. Every bump as the snow cat hit stumps or downed trees under the snow caused continued sharp pain. The snow cat pulled into a small yard filled with trucks and other vehicles in front of this little two room cabin which was being used as a triage point for the rescue. Strapped to my back board so that I couldn’t move, I was pulled from the snow cat and hurried into the cabin. With portable heaters blasting out hot air, I was placed on a table and blankets were piled on top of me. It was now around noon as they worked to stabilize me and prepare me for transport. I was shivering and shaking from the severe exposure. Around me stood numerous medical personnel and one of them reached to my neck searching for my pulse. I had a neck brace on as well as being strapped to the full length back board and when she was unsuccessful finding my pulse there she reached for my groin, again trying to find a pulse. At this point I found the strength to tell them, “Keep trying, I am still alive!” They cut my shirt off me and started an IV. Another lady removed my boots and held my feet in her warm hands trying to warm my frozen toes. One of the rescuers asked me if there was someone he could notify for me. I gave him my home phone, so he could reach Kathleen but also told him if he was unable to reach her at that number please call my folks house as she may be with them. He promised to make the calls as soon as he got back to his home in Kremmling.

At around 1:30 pm with an extremely week pulse, in shock and suffering from the long and harsh exposure, I was loaded into an ambulance along with another crash victim, Todd Chanoski, and we headed for Steamboat. Todd had similar injuries to me and he had been seated in the seat immediately behind mine on the plane. When they told us that we would be headed back into Steamboat, it was only then that I realized we were much closer to Steamboat than we were to Denver. All this time I thought we must have crashed in the foot hills just West of Denver. The blizzard was raging on as the ambulance pulled away from the cabin. As we headed over Rabbit Ears pass back towards Steamboat, the ice buildup on the road was heavy. Previous truck traffic with chained tires had created a road that felt like a washboard. The ambulance traveled slowly due to the choppy, icy roads and the blowing snow conditions. With every bump in the ice my back screamed in pain. The ambulance driver apologized for the bumpy ride and did what he could to adjust his speed attempting to neutralize the rough road, but nothing worked. It seemed like this ride would never end.

Finally, around 3:00 pm we arrived at the emergency room in Steamboat Springs. The hospital Doctors and nurses were ready. X-rays were taken and the report came back that I likely had a broken back. Although qualified to operate on it, they felt I would be better off seeing Dr. Courtney Brown, a well-qualified surgeon in Denver who they had consulted with. While lying in the emergency room I was visited by Joe Backers, the project superintendent I had just met with the day before. He too volunteered to call Kathleen and let her know what was going on there in Steamboat.

Following all the communications back and forth between Steamboat ER and St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver and coordinating with the Flight for Life medical jet, it was close to 9:00 pm before we were loaded back into an ambulance heading for the Hayden airport. The Steamboat airport was closed due to the weather, but Haden’s airport was able to handle jet traffic. The emergency medical jet was waiting for me and two other passengers to take us to Denver. The other two passengers on the medical flight were Todd Chanoski and Ms. Kotts. When the decision was made to fly me to Denver, Kathleen and my folks headed to Saint Anthony’s Hospital to be there when we arrived. Once in Denver the blizzard still raged on and it was not possible to use a helicopter to transport us from Stapleton International airport to the hospital. The three of us, all plane crash victims, were once again loaded onto another ambulance and we were driven across Denver to the Hospital. Because the weather conditions in Denver were so poor at this, the drive from Stapleton to the hospital took another forty-five minutes.

At 11:45 pm we arrived at the emergency room at Saint Anthony’s hospital. Kathleen and my parents were told that we were there and being unloaded. Kathleen said as we were first rolled through the doors she didn’t recognize me but knew which one I was because I wasn’t the lady and I wasn’t the Asian gentleman that had been brought in before me. She recalls that my head was swollen like a large ball and was black and blue with bruises. I had frost bite on my hands and feet, but most debilitating I had a broken back. X-rays were once again taken and doctors were consulted, once again I was told, “You have a broken back.” By now it was almost 2:00 am the morning of December 6th. After laying on that plywood back board for the last 16 or 17 hours, my butt hurt almost as bad as my back. Approximately 30 hours after the crash, the decision was finally made to remove me from the back board—carefully laying me in a soft(er) bed, allowing me to drink some water for the first time, and to finally administer some pain medication.

The road to recovery was not an easy one. The first thing the Doctors tried was to use what they referred to as a, “Craig pad”—a small triangular pillow placed in the small of my back trying to put pressure on my spine to realign it. On December 15th, after 5 days with no success in realigning my spine, the decision was made to operate. Dr. Courtney Brown, who was the past Olympic ski team Doctor, was the surgeon. He stated that my injury looked like a classic seat belt injury where one has been pulled from their seat belt causing the broken back. The surgery included a fusion between L2 and L3. He used stainless steel springs which he referred to as “Weiss springs” as clamps on either side of the spine. Before the surgery, I had felt like a fish with no connection between my upper torso and my lower hips. Following the surgery, with the steel springs clamping my back together, I once again felt that my upper and lower halves were connected. Now all I needed to do was to get out of this bed and walk again. A couple of days following the surgery, I was wheeled down to the physical therapy department where they would help me to stand and walk. How hard could that be?

Once in the physical therapy room, my bed was wheeled over beside a set of parallel bars that were just at hand height for someone standing with their hands at their side. My job was to roll to my side and then sit straight up to avoid any bending of my back, then slip off the bed and stand between the bars and walk from one end to the other. I got this, I thought to myself. I used to do the parallel bars in gymnastics. I wrestled, ran track and cross country so how hard could it be to sit up, slide off a bed, and walk the length of the parallel bars and back? Reality quickly set in when I struggled to set up, and when the room started spinning in circles around me, I was finished. Not having been vertical for several weeks, now my equilibrium was all messed up. Sitting there, I was so dizzy there was no way I could move. The physical therapist respectfully stated, “That’s okay Mr. Brooks, we will try again tomorrow.” She helped me lay back down and I was wheeled back to my room. Tomorrow came and we attempted the same routine. This time I was able to sit up and after a few moments my head quit spinning around, so I was ready to walk—so I thought. I reached for the parallel bars and slowly slid off the edge of my bed onto my feet. As I stood there I couldn’t make my legs work! I couldn’t take a step. Once again, the therapist said, “That’s okay Mr. Brooks, we will try again tomorrow.” She helped me back onto the bed and back to my room I went. It was at this point that I felt emotionally wiped out. I thought maybe I never will walk again and I was so depressed. At the time I couldn’t understand what was so hard about just standing up and walking. Over the next week or so I slowly regained the muscle control to make my legs work and slowly began to get around. On December 21st I was released from the hospital. Well, actually I was taken by ambulance so that I could stay horizontal all the way to Timnath, a small town just outside of Fort Collins an hour’s drive north of Denver, where my folks lived. Kathleen and I planned to stay with them for a few days and celebrate Christmas with them and the rest of the family.

For 6 months I wore the back brace not bending over at all. I could not put on my own socks, could not tie my own shoes and needed a great deal of assistance for the next few months. After about 6 months, the Dr. told me I could get rid of the back brace and start bending over slowly and easily. He explained that the muscles in my lower back had been extremely traumatized and that they would need some time to regain their strength and flexibility. He also stated that as I started to bend further and further, eventually I would snap the steel springs. He assured me that I would know when that happened and after they were both in pieces he would go back in and remove them. He was right about feeling them snap. Imagine how it might feel if someone pinched your lower back muscles with a pair of pliers. That is how it felt when those springs finally let go trapping the muscle between their coils. With broken steel springs, I would occasionally sit only to jump to my feet again as the end of one of those springs was using my back as a pin cushion.

In January of the following year (1980) a second back surgery was performed by Dr. Brown to remove the broken spring fragments. For years following the second surgery, I had to learn to cope with some pain which on occasion would shoot down my sciatic nerve from my lower back to the back of my knees. I learned that the dura membrane had been ruptured in the accident and that if there had been any additional trauma or pressure, my spinal cord could have easily been severed. The shooting pain down my legs was caused by scar tissue that had formed on the inside of the dura membrane which rubbed on the nerves.

I have learned many valuable lessons that I would not trade having gone through this ordeal. The first and foremost is that we have a big and loving God who does answer prayers. If He can’t get your attention one way, He may try another so maybe it is just a good idea to pay attention from the start. I have learned that I married a strong woman who loves me and is willing to stand with me through thick and thin. I also learned that the human body and mind is quite capable of extraordinary endurance. Although death is not a pleasant experience, because I have come so close, and because I know my Lord, I am not afraid to die. In many ways it would have been easier to just drift off and die that cold miserable night on the mountain. But life has so many rewards if we look for God’s beauty and work to stay in His plan. His abundance, grace and the hope it fosters is both everything to live for, and to die for.

All rights reserved. Permission to reprint all or part of this story by permission only.
© 2018 Dennis Brooks

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