RED MOUNTAIN PASS – A one-car accident near the top of Red Mountain Pass on Friday evening (March 25) resulted in an extraordinary act of bravery by a Montrose man and a dramatic rescue by what Ouray Mountain Rescue captain Mike MacLeod called “a great multi-agency effort.”
James Amrine, 38, of Montrose was returning home from Silverton with his girlfriend when they saw the 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee ahead of them sail off the snowy road and down a steep embankment. By the time Amrine had pulled to a stop, the Jeep, which was lying on its roof 300 feet down in the creek bottom, had burst into flame.
The accident happened in the first sharp curves south of the Ouray/San Juan County line at about mile marker 79.5.
“It was pretty steep,” Amrine told The Watch in a phone interview. But his girlfriend, Shannon Daignault, “said to get down there. So, I jumped off the cliff.”
In snow sometimes up to his chest, the burly Amrine (he is listed on his driver’s license as 6’3” and 242 lbs.) worked his way to the vehicle and saw the driver, 29-year-old Eric Petranek of Durango, lying part way out of the driver’s side door.
Amrine later told San Juan County Undersheriff Kristine Burns that it was too hot, because of the burning tires, for him to get closer than about five feet to the victim. Amrine said that Petranek’s jacket was on fire and that he “threw snow on him” to squelch those flames.
According to Amrine, Petranek was having trouble speaking but told him to get back, “It’s gonna blow. Save yourself. Leave me to die.” But Amrine, who served for 10 years in the Marine Corps, lowered a branch from a nearby fir tree far enough for Petranek to grasp. Together they were able to pull Petranek, whom Amrine described as “bleeding profusely,” 10-15 feet from the burning vehicle.
Meanwhile, up on the roadway, Daignault had called 911, and fire rescue personnel from Silverton had arrived. Medic Kyle Messich descended on a rope to the patient while Amrine, figuring that Petranek, lying on the snow, was a safe distance from the Jeep, struggled back up to the road. “Twenty feet from the top, they threw me a rope,” he said.
“That was no small feat to get down that slope,” MacLeod said later. “We used ropes to get down over the edge. We used every bit of a 90-meter rope to get down to the victim.”
As members of the OMR team arrived, they took over rigging to haul the litter back up to the waiting ambulance, which also came from Ouray.
“It was one of the more bizarre scenes I’ve been on,” said MacLeod. “Like a scene from the Terminator movies: It was dusk. Smoke was everywhere, debris was everywhere. The weather was snowing and blowing. Cars don’t just blow up like that, except in the movies. This car was fully engulfed in flames
“Silverton Fire did a great job of packaging [Petranek] up. Our job was to get him out of there. We had our boom-pole truck and winched the litter up. Clint Cook and I were the attendants on the litter.”
MacLeod said that when he first heard about the accident location, he thought they would be going on a body recovery. But just in case, he had the Tri-Care helicopter put on alert. “We were pretty sure even with the weather that the helicopter could land in Ouray.” The Ouray EMS ambulance transported Petranek to the town park where he was loaded into the helicopter.
“The medics said he had second-degree burns on his hands and face, and because of smoke inhalation, they were worried about a potential airway compromise. So they decided to go straight to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction.”
MacLeod listed the responding agencies that participated in the rescue: Silverton Fire, San Juan County Sheriffs, San Juan Search and Rescue, Ouray Mountain Rescue, Ouray County EMS, Ouray fire support (they sent an engine), and the Colorado State Patrol.
Reached at home in Montrose on Monday (March 28) James Amrine said that his breathing had just then returned to normal after inhaling so much smoke. Asked about his selfless act, he replied, “I didn’t think nothing of it. Anybody would of done it.”
CSP Trooper Kohlerschmidt, who was in charge of investigating at the scene, told The Watch that “he [Petranek] was either going too fast for conditions” on the icy and snowpacked surface, “or he got distracted and missed the turn. He went straight off.”