May 6, 1999
Pagosa SunFront Page
Plane crash claims two
By David C. Mitchell
A Colorado Air National Guard helicopter, assisted by Upper San Juan Search and Rescue personnel, retrieved the bodies of a Parker couple from the site of a plane crash on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass above U.S. 160 Wednesday afternoon.
Donald E. Ecker, 66, and his wife, Jimmie N. Ecker, 59, were in flight to Pagosa Springs Sunday when their single-engine Cessna 182 went down during a heavy snow storm.
The wreckage was located late Tuesday afternoon (May 2), just below a shear rock formation that rises above an area known as "The 160 Slide." The extremely steep avalanche area sits above the northwest side of the highway about 2.5 miles below the summit of Wolf Creek Pass in Mineral County.
The plane's flight plan, which had been recorded at the Front Range Airport east of Denver, stated that the couple planned to land at Stevens Field in Pagosa Springs, before continuing to the Farmington, N.M., airport.
The couple had planned to visit the pilot's brother, Alden Ecker of Pagosa Springs, and then fly on to visit their daughter and son-in-law, Greg Morgan and Rev. Johnnie Morgan, who live in Farmington.
Alden Ecker said yesterday that his brother was "an experienced, cautious pilot. He was instrument rated. He had filed a flight plan and had flown the route over Wolf Creek Pass a number of times. We've flown it together no telling how many times."
Based on his own experiences of flying Wolf Creek and on flights he had made with his brother, Alden said his brother probably got trapped by heavy cloud cover and extremely strong winds that moved in behind him after he had crossed over the Continental Divide atop Wolf Creek. "He probably had good weather behind him before he crossed over the ridge," Alden Ecker said, but icing, poor visibility and strong swirling winds became a factor on the mountain's western slope.
"Their plane probably went down about 1:30 Sunday afternoon," Ecker said, "and the Civil Air Patrol Mission Control Center in Virginia called me at about 5:10 p.m. to report that they had picked up a signal from the plane's emergency transmitter locator and that their planes had already been in the air searching the area."
But as was the case Sunday, adverse weather conditions hampered air and ground teams Monday and Tuesday.
Mineral County Sheriff Phil Leggitt said Wednesday, that the crew of one of the two Colorado Air National Guard helicopters that assisted in the operation spotted the snow-covered wreckage at about 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.
"They had arrived Monday afternoon but were only able to search the mountainside for about 20 minutes before the weather forced them to return to the Archuleta County Airport," Leggitt said. The scenario repeated itself early Tuesday with the helicopters again trying to determine a definite location for the emergency transmitter. But heavy clouds and driving snow moved in about 10 a.m. and again forced the aircraft back to Stevens Field.
Utilizing Wolf Creek Ski Area's radio transmitters, Civil Air Patrol Capt. Warren Holland of Durango radioed Wolf Creek employee Neal Smith at Stevens Field Tuesday afternoon to notify the Air National Guard crews that a safe "window" had opened in the cloud coverage on the Pass.
After returning to the general area of the emergency transmission signal, the outline of the snow-covered wreckage was spotted among the trees by one of the helicopter crews at about 5:15 p.m.
Mineral County Coroner Charles Downing said a ground team from Rio Grande Search and Rescue used snow shoes to climb the steep face of the slide area to locate and secure the crash victims. Downing said the ground team reached the crash site at about 7:15 p.m. The search team reported that the plane's canopy had been torn loose during the crash and that the victims had been ejected from the cockpit, Downing said.
The snow was about 4-feet deep at the crash site and "I'm sure that death occurred at impact," Downing said.
At the request of Sheriff Leggitt, three members of San Juan Search and Rescue, Sean Curtis, Carl Macht and John Hager, climbed to the crash site Wednesday morning to assist the helicopter crew in recovering the victims.
The three men had performed a similar task following a March 27 plane crash in southeast Archuleta County that claimed the lives of Richard and Deborah Miller of Perry, Iowa, and their 14-year-old son, Ryan. Following that accident, Curtis, Macht and Hager had assisted a helicopter crew using winch lines to transfer the bodies to an awaiting ambulance.
After being retrieved from the crash site, the victims were airlifted to the highway and an awaiting ambulance. Downing said Wednesday afternoon that the victims had been taken to a funeral home in Monte Vista, then transported to El Paso County where a pathologist was to conduct an autopsy.
Ecker expressed nothing but praise for the efforts of the Civil Air Patrol, Wolf Creek Ski Area personnel and the law enforcement and rescue groups of Archuleta, Mineral and Rio Grande counties.
Ecker specifically complimented the efforts of Sheriff Leggitt and the numerous responders from the San Luis Valley. "Sheriff Leggitt and his people have done everything that could have been done throughout this entire operation," Ecker said.
"And I can't say enough about Davey Pitcher (Wolf Creek Ski Area general manager)," Ecker said. "He put his people and snowcats and their radios at our disposal as soon as he learned about it. He's paying them for their time and the cost of operating the equipment. He went in on snowshoes himself Sunday evening and searched the area because he thought there could be survivors. He finally came out at about 4 a.m. Monday. He probably was on those rocks right above them, but there was no way he could have spotted anything after all that snow."
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