Steamboat Springs Routt County officials pulled off a daring rescue Sunday night, saving four passengers whose plane crashed in the mountains southeast of Steamboat Springs.
Rescue workers at the scene said the plane, a Piper Cherokee Saratoga, was lodged between two trees and that one of the passengers -- the only woman on board -- was wedged in the wreckage. Heavy snow was falling at the crash site. One rescue worker described it as whiteout conditions.
"These conditions are some of the worst we have ever had for a snowmobile mission," said Scott Havener of Routt County Search and Rescue, the site commander for the rescue.
Three men and a woman were on the plane, which was en route from Steamboat Springs to Canon City, said Chuck Vale, Routt County emergency services director. Two of the passengers are in critical condition and the other two have serious injuries, Vale said.
One of the passengers used a cellular phone to call 911 shortly after the plane went down at about 1:05 p.m., Routt County Sheriff John Warner said. No flight plan had been filed and officials do not know what caused the plane to go down, Vale said.
At about 4:12 p.m., two search and rescue helicopters spotted the plane in the Routt National Forest. The plane went down in Harrison Creek drainage due south of 10,559-foot Walton Peak and about seven miles southwest of the summit of Rabbit Ears Pass.
Two Steamboat firefighters trained in extrication were transported to the crash site by snow cat to try to remove the passenger still lodged in the wreckage. At 8:42 p.m., they radioed in that the woman had been freed and that they were working to get her transported across the five miles of deep snow to an ambulance waiting on Rabbit Ears Pass. The woman was unconscious but breathing.
An hour earlier, rescue workers had used a snow cat to remove the first passenger from the crash site. That passenger, the most seriously injured, was taken by ambulance to Yampa Valley Medical Center. The other two passengers were taken out next by snowmobile and taken to the medical center by ambulance.
As he boarded the ambulance, one of the passengers told rescue workers there were three dogs on board the plane. The passenger asked rescue workers to return to the crash site for the dogs.
Emergency officials staged the rescue operation from Steamboat Snowmobile Tours on Rabbit Ears Pass and used snowmobiles to reach the plane. The first snowmobile reached the downed plane at 4:45 p.m.
Vale said the snowmobilers could not return the way they came in. Workers spent several hours devising a route that the snowmobiles and snow cat could take to get the passengers out.
Vale said six rescue workers made it to the crash site. Some 30 personnel were on hand at Rabbit Ears Pass to assist with the rescue including the snow cat team, snowmobile teams and a cross-country ski team. Paramedics were on site.
Vale said the weather made it extremely difficult to execute the rescue.
The Colorado Highway Patrol closed the eastbound lane of U.S. Highway 40 so an Air National Guard helicopter equipped to fly at night could land on the highway and assist with the rescue.
Officials had hoped to use a basket from the helicopter to drop supplies at the site and remove passengers. But when the snow picked up around 5:30 p.m., the helicopter could no longer fly.
"We talked to the National Weather Service, who warned us a storm was moving in," Vale said. "We thought we had a couple more hours, but Mother Nature kind of changed plans on us and moved in quicker.
"If the weather had held, we might have had two people out (earlier)."
Agencies assisting with the rescue included the Routt County Sheriff's Department, Routt County Search and Rescue, the Air National Guard, Steamboat Fire and Rescue, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol. Steamboat Snowmobile Tours assisted with the rescue.