Army craft hits power line during training mission; snowmobilers give first aid while rescuers rush to site
By Manny Gonzales and Shelley Gonzales
Rocky Mountain News Staff Writers
LEADVILLE -- An Army helicopter hit a power line and crashed Sunday afternoon near Turquoise Lake, injuring six people aboard, two seriously.
The UH-60 Black Hawk had just picked up soldiers on a training mission for the Fort Carson-based 10th Special Forces Group when it went down just after 1 p.m. in clear, but frigid weather, Fort Carson spokesman Douglas Rule said.
Witnesses said the back of the chopper clipped a high-tension wire before crashing into the rocky, heavily wooded terrain four miles southwest of Turquoise Lake.
Watching the craft go down were Tom Jaramillo, 31, and Milton Foreman, 45, both painters from Leadville, who were snowmobiling about 150 yards away.
"We saw it hit the power lines, and then there was this big popping sound, like an explosion,'' Jaramillo said. "It started spinning around and it was kind of like a slow fall, like the pilot was kind of in control. You have to give a lot of credit to that pilot for setting it down, but when it hit the ground, it flipped over on its side.''
The pair rushed to the crash but took cover behind some trees, fearing the helicopter would explode. They yelled to the occupants, who eventually motioned that it was safe to approach.
It took about a half-hour for Jaramillo, Foreman and several other snowmobilers to free one of the pilots, whose foot had become stuck under a pedal.
"They were all in a lot of pain,'' Jaramillo said. "One of them, I think he was the pilot, looked like he was going to go into shock.''
The snowmobilers used blankets and liners from inside the helicopter to cover the victims.
"We laid next to them to keep their body temperatures up and kept talking to them to keep them awake, but one of them was going in and out,'' Jaramillo said.
Foreman took his ski suit off and offered it to one of the victims.
"One of the guys' toes looked frostbit, so I pulled off his sock and tried to keep up the circulation,'' he said. "We are happy we were there to help those guys. We've never done anything like that before.''
Scott Phillips, a Leadville firefighter and Summit County paramedic, credited Jaramillo and Foreman with preventing the soldiers from freezing to death.
"When I arrived, they were moving toward hypothermia,'' said Phillips, one of the first rescuers to reach the crash site. It took nearly an hour for crews to arrive by choppers and track vehicles.
"It was cold,'' Summit County paramedic Steve Kleeberger said. "Probably about 0 degrees or 5 below, and the snow was about 8 feet deep in some places.''
The helicopter's blades were sheared off, but the cabin remained intact.
The most seriously injured -- Master Sgt. James H. Tappenden of B Co., 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group -- was airlifted 95 miles to St. Anthony Hospital Central in Denver. Hospital spokeswoman Jan Mitchell said Tappenden, a passenger on the craft, was in serious condition. The Army said he had suffered rib injuries.
Three other soldiers were airlifted to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, one with a broken leg and two with possible back injuries. Two other soldiers were treated at St. Vincent Hospital in Leadville for treatment of minor injuries.
Names of the five lesser-injured soldiers won't be released until relatives are notified.
Rule said a safety official is on site for the investigation, which will be carried out by the Army Safety Center based at Fort Rucker, Ala.
The UH-60 Black Hawk is used throughout the American military. It ranges in cost from $5.9 million to $10.2 million, according to the Department of Defense.
Pilots of two other Fort Carson Black Hawks waiting at St. Vincent to transport victims to Colorado Springs said Leadville is one of the most dangerous areas in North America in which to maneuver helicopters because of the altitude and thin air.
In the hospital waiting room, pilots filled up on hot soup, pondering the safest route to take through the Rocky Mountains.
Rule expressed gratitude for the quick actions of the snowmobilers and relief that no one had been killed.
"That's what it all comes down to,'' he said. "Helicopters are rebuildable, people aren't.''
The crash occurred a day after two soldiers were killed at Simmons Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, N.C., when a UH-60 Black Hawk malfunctioned during routine maintenance. The accident was believed to have been caused by an equipment failure, and the soldiers apparently were killed by flying debris. A third soldier was hospitalized and later released.
Associated Press contributed to this report.
February 2, 1998 - Rocky Mountain News, Denver, CO