At least the weather wasn’t stormy, as it had been for the first three days of their rescue mission.
Though everyone knew by now this was no rescue. At best, they hoped to simply recover the last two missing victims of the plane that crashed here, on Saturday, Dec. 3.
In a holiday trip gone tragically awry, a Durango business owner and three Durango Alpine Bank employees were winging across the state toward Alpine Bank’s annual holiday party to be held that evening in Aspen. Their small single-engine aircraft crashed into the densely forested mountainside near Silverton.
Over a difficult four-day search operation, more than 30 people from nine different regional agencies recovered all of the victims’ bodies by Tuesday afternoon.
The remains of Gena Rych, 26, and Tyler Black, 24, discovered by rescuers just before dark on Sunday, were positively identified during an autopsy Monday, said Dan Bender, spokesman for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, and public information officer for the SAR operation.
Several independent sources identified the other two victims as Steve Osborne and his wife Jan (Measles) Osborne, the Durango Herald reported. Their remains were recovered Tuesday.
Steve Osborne, an experienced pilot and longtime owner of Building Specialties Store, Inc., took off with his small clutch of passengers from Animas Air Park in Durango at around midday on Saturday.
The day was stormy across much of the state. His four-seater plane, a French-built Socata TB 21, could cruise at higher altitudes over bad weather. According to manufacturer specs, the Socata’s certified ceiling is 25,000 feet.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Tim LeBaron of Fort Worth, Tex., in Silverton Tuesday to begin his investigation of the crash, reported that Osborne was not an instrument-rated pilot, and was flying VFR, pilot lingo for visual flight rules, which the Federal Aviation Administration defines as “a set of regulations which allow a pilot to operate an aircraft in weather conditions generally clear enough to allow the pilot to see where the aircraft is going.”
VFR guidelines require a pilot to be able to see outside the cockpit, to control the aircraft's altitude, to navigate and to avoid obstacles and other aircraft. “Pilots flying under VFR assume responsibility for their separation from all other aircraft and are generally not assigned routes or altitudes by air traffic control,” FAA regulations state.
Indeed, LeBaron confirmed that as a private pilot, Osborne was not required to, and in fact did not, file a flight plan for his journey over the mountains that day.
Shortly before the crash occurred, however, air traffic control authorities in Durango reported that Osborne had made radio contact with them at a cruising altitude of 20,000 feet, requesting VFR flight-following, which put him on-frequency with the ATC facility for the brief remainder of his flight.
The plane’s wreckage was discovered strewn across a mountainside near Silverton hours later, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.
Low clouds and thickly falling snow obscured visibility within the Silverton caldera on Saturday. At around 1:30 p.m., several locals heard the sound of a low-flying plane, followed by a “thump,” then no more aircraft noise. Venturing out into the storm up County Road 110 along Cement Creek toward the “thump,” they found bits of aircraft insulation still floating down out of the air.
“There was debris all over the place, on both sides of the road,” San Juan County Sheriff Sue Kurtz said.
Kurtz had received word from the FAA about an emergency locator transmitter that had gone off in the area. The search for the downed plane was on.
Three different rescue teams dispersed in the foul weather on Saturday afternoon – one on each side of County Road 110, and another from “S Rock,” a landmark on the slope of Anvil Mountain overlooking Silverton.
It was the latter team, winding its way around steep canyons and dense forest on Anvil Mountain’s northern slopes, which eventually located the aircraft’s emergency transmitter.
The debris field covered half-a-mile of mountainside between 10,000 and 11,000 feet west of County Road 110. LeBaron described the plane as being “broken up,” with the tail in one place, each wing in another and the engine in yet another place.
“But to look up at it, you’d have no clue there was a plane crash or any refuse up there,” said Dan Bender of the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, the Public Information Officer for the rescue effort. “It is just solid forest.”
By nightfall, the team had located more wreckage, but still no victims.
“Everyone had to be out by dark,” Sheriff Kurtz said. “It was awful, brutal weather, and very poor visibility.”
A more focused search on Sunday resulted in the discovery of the bodies of Rych and Black by days’ end. The search was again suspended due to additional snowfall, plummeting temperatures and darkness, Bender said.
On Monday the search teams regrouped, preparing search plots for the target area.
Early Tuesday morning, in temperatures which had dipped overnight to a frigid 22 degrees below zero, teams from La Plata County Search and Rescue, San Juan County Search and Rescue, Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, Silverton San Juan Fire Rescue Authority, and the Silverton Snowmobile Club set out to find the remains of the last two victims.
Officials held out no hope of finding them alive. “Given the size of the debris field, it’s not a situation where an airplane lost power and made a pancake landing into trees, as has happened before where you do have survivors,” Bender explained. “This was not a survivable crash.”
That prediction proved true when the bodies of Steve and Jan Osborne were recovered on Tuesday afternoon.
By this time, the weather had mellowed, as had the general morale among those involved in the grueling four-day recovery operation. The last few SAR personnel descended from the crash area, crossed Cement Creek and trudged in twos and threes up the steep, snowy embankment to County Road 110. The mood at the incident command center there was tinged with relief and the satisfaction of a job well done.
“We’ve all known the subjects for years; to be able to take them home is a tremendous blessing,” said one member of the La Plata County Search and Rescue Team.
San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler described it as “a good day – mission accomplished.” She had been in touch with the families of the victims, who were relieved their loved ones’ remains had been recovered.
The Alpine Bank community, too, was relieved as search operations approached a successful conclusion. “Even though we have roughly 500 employees, we operate like a large family,” Alpine Bank President Glen Jammaron said Tuesday morning from Durango, where he had been since Monday, trying to help bank employees cope with the tragedy. “There has been an overwhelming amount of community folks sending in their condolences,” Jammaron added.
A press release issued by the bank earlier this week stated, “The entire company is deeply touched by this event. All [of the victims] were highly regarded and will be remembered fondly. Our thought, prayers and condolences go out to the family and friends of those that lost their lives.”
A benefit account has been set up at Alpine Bank for the families of the victims. Contributions can be made at any bank location.
At a press conference on Tuesday evening, Dec. 6, LeBaron would not speculate whether hypoxia, treacherous weather, pilot error or equipment malfunction might have played a role in the fatal crash. He’s working hard to remain open to any and all scenarios regarding man, machine and the environment.
The accident could take up to a year to fully investigate, he said, after which a panel of five Presidential appointees will review all available information and attempt to determine what caused the crash.
Unlike commercial aircraft, the downed Socata did not contain a “black box” (a recorder of aircraft and flight data). Its emergency locator transmitter simply sent a signal that aided in locating the aircraft.
LeBaron said he has already interviewed some witnesses. Anyone with information related to the accident can contact him directly at 817/456-8695.