Buff Pass plane crash survivor, rescuer share ‘miracle’ stories

Rescue workers preparing to evacuate injured survivors through the passenger entrance door. The evacuation began in the pre-dawn hours when Dave Lindow and the initial rescue team located the crash site. As seen in this photo, the rescue operation continued long after sunrise when additional snow cats arrived to continue the evacuation. Photo courtesy of Rod Hanna

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Forty years after a small commuter plane crashed on Buffalo Pass during a snowstorm, rescuer Jerry Alsum can still be brought to tears talking about what he calls “The Miracle on Buffalo Pass.”

He and a few crash survivors shared their stories with a standing-room-only crowd at the Tread of Pioneers Museum during the museum’s Brown Bag Storytelling Series.

Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217 left Steamboat Springs airport Dec. 5, 1978, with 22 people on board including the pilot and co-pilot. The plane would crash an hour later as its pilots tried to return because of snowstorms.

A freak “mountain wave” or heavy downdraft, would send the plane in a dip, causing it to clip a power line on Buffalo Pass. All but one person survived the actual crash, including a baby who was torn from his mother’s arms and hurdled across the plane. The pilot would die in a hospital three days later.

Alsum was in Denver when he and his father, brother and other Civil Air Patrol rescuers got the call about the crash. Rescuers from Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins would fight through a blizzard as they headed toward the Walden area to meet up with search and rescue crews from Routt County.

Alsum, an EMT who led the ground search, said the first miracle was running into Steamboat resident Dave Lindow, who had a snowcat and was searching for the plane as well.

“When the plane hit, the power in Walden goes off. Lots of people knew that these power lines went over the pass (Buffalo), and Dave Lindow thought the same thing,” Alsum said.

Alsum choked up as he told the crowd about criss-crossing the area with the snowcat for hours, listening for a radio signal with their direction finder.

“It’s dark, and the snow is blowing sideways,” Alsum said. “And we hear screams coming out of the darkness.

“We had been on a lot of airplane searches in our career and hadn’t picked up a survivor yet,” Alsum explained. “You just don’t hear people surviving like this and to hear those voices coming out of the forest …”

Alsum said the plane didn’t hit any big trees and landed with the exit door facing up. Incredibly, several people were walking around the crash including 20-year-old Jon Pratt.

Pratt, who now lives in Grand Lake, shared his remarkable story with the Tread of Pioneers audience. He told how he panicked when he finally got the exit door open and ran for his life, thinking the plane would blow up.

“I was selfish,” Pratt told the audience.

In fact, Pratt went on to administer what first aid he could to anyone who was screaming. He gathered clothes, blankets and anything he could find from baggage to cover victims. Then he saw a hand sticking out of the snow near the cockpit. He and another passenger thought the co-pilot was dead.

About two hours later, after Pratt had settled down surviving passengers, he went to check on radio equipment and saw that frozen hand moving.

“I started digging him out. I was just savage,” Pratt said. “I kept digging down, and I was clawing, and I got to his face, and I heard him taking a huge breath.”

The co-pilot lived and continued piloting airplanes.

The news photographer who joined one of the snowcat rescue crews was also at the museum on Friday. Tom Baer now lives in Steamboat and at the time worked for Channel 9 in Denver. His incredible on-the-scene film was broadcast across the nation, with victims screaming in pain while rescuers and medical personnel treated the wounded at the snowy site.

For a full account from many survivors and rescuers, the book, “Miracle on Buffalo Pass: Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217,” is now being sold at Tread of Pioneers.

Alsum, rescuers and survivors also will be signing books during an upcoming reunion Sept. 21 at The Steamboat Grand.

The passenger who died, Steamboat resident Mary Kay Hardin, was one of three U.S. Forest Service employees on the plane that night.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Steamboat and Routt County make the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.