After plane crashed on Rabbit Ears, searchers worked through the night to bring closure to victims’ families |

After plane crashed on Rabbit Ears, searchers worked through the night to bring closure to victims’ families

Scott Franz
Rabbit Ears plane crash site
Vicky Ho

NTSB investigators to arrive at crash site Tuesday

A team of investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board is on its way to Routt County to start the probe of the plane crash on Rabbit Ears Pass that killed two people.

Dan Baker, deputy chief for the NTSB's Central Region office in Denver, said Monday morning that the lead investigator is traveling Monday from Texas and is expected to be on the scene of the crash Tuesday morning.

"The indications we've gotten from search and rescue and the sheriff's office is that we will be able to travel to the wreckage," Baker said.

Investigators will document what they find at the crash site and will start working to determine what caused the crash.

The wreckage then will be recovered.

Routt County Undersheriff Ray Birch said the U.S. Forest Service has made plans to airlift the wreckage sometime Tuesday.

Investigators could have a preliminary crash report in the coming days.

Steamboat Springs Airport Manager Chris Cole said an investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Standards District Office also will be involved in the investigation of the crash and the pilot.

— When the sun went down, the search couldn’t end.

For many hours Saturday night and early Sunday morning, Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers donned headlamps and hobbled across beetle-killed trees and other obstacles in a rugged part of Rabbit Ears Pass as they raced to find a downed airplane.

The hike took them from a vantage point on South Walton Peak down a few miles into the crash site in the Harrison Creek drainage.

Signals coming from an emergency beacon on the single-engine Piper Arrow seemed to be bouncing off of nearby cliffs and peaks, making it hard to pinpoint the plane’s location from the ground.

The plane was difficult to find, but the volunteers could not slow down.

Their motivation?

The wives and families of the crash victims had heard the plane was spotted by a reconnaissance flight at 8 p.m. Saturday.

They would have to wait for hours to learn the fate of their loved ones inside.

The spotting of the plane wreckage from another airplane revealed that the fuselage appeared intact and gave searchers some hope the plane’s two occupants could have survived and could be out there in that night, injured and in need of rescue.

After about seven hours of searching, the Search and Rescue teams ultimately would learn their race would not end with survivors.

Their race would end with valuable closure.

“It was extremely difficult and a lot of hours in very rugged terrain, but boy, these searchers stuck with it,” Search and Rescue incident commander Jim Linville said Monday. “Very few teams in this state would go out at night like this. But because there was the chance someone was out there in that plane injured, we went out in the night.”

The breakthrough in the search for the plane came after 1 a.m. Sunday many miles from the crash site in the Search and Rescue building on Yampa Street.

Here, the volunteers coordinating the search were hoping to get a more precise location of where exactly the plane had crashed.

They had general coordinates from the National Radar Analysis Team, which tracks aircraft after they have left a local airport.

With that general understanding of where the plane crashed after it took off from Steamboat Springs Airport en route to Boulder, local Civil Air Patrol pilots Bob DelValle and Don Heineman spotted the wreckage Saturday evening from DelValle’s Cessna 182.

But after hours of exhaustive search efforts on the ground using the believed coordinates of the wreckage, the plane still was elusive.

The two reconnaissance pilots walked into the Search and Rescue command center after 1 a.m. to look at the satellite imagery on Google Earth and point to a more precise location.

As they looked over the map, search and rescue volunteers continued their search that included tracing an Emergency Locator Transmitter signal from the plane.

The information the two pilots gave at the early morning map session enabled the searchers to find the crash site at about 2:30 a.m.

The victims’ loved ones got the news.

The plane’s two occupants, flight instructor William Earl Allen, 62, of Broomfield, and his student Terry Lynn Stewart, 60, of Houston, were found dead in the wreckage.

Searchers discovered the fuselage was intact, and the plane’s wings were sheared off.

Linville said it appeared the front of the aircraft had been crushed in the crash.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were expected to arrive in Routt County on Tuesday morning to start determining what caused the crash.

“If we didn’t go there early in the morning (on Sunday), they told us they may not have found the plane until sunrise,” Heineman said. “It was a bad situation, but at least we got closure.”

The hours of searching for the downed plane and recovering the victims involved several agencies including the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, Search and Rescue, Civil Air Patrol pilots, local helicopter pilot John Witte and the U.S. Forest Service.

After the plane and the deceased were found, the searchers made the trek back home.

Linville said some went home to get a very short amount of sleep and then returned to go out and help in the tough recovery efforts.

“We gave it everything we could,” Linville said. “It was quite an effort on the part of a lot of people.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

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