Passengers call survival 'a miracle'

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— Neil "Tony" Marsh does not look like a man who was in a plane crash two days ago.

He has no bandages, casts or visible wounds.

He was lucky, he said, to walk away from the crash Sunday of the Piper Cherokee Saratoga in the Routt National Forest.

Marsh, pilot Lloyd "Skip" Moreau of Canon City and Steve Palmer of Colorado Springs survived. Palmer's mother -- 57-year-old Henrietta Palmer, also of Colorado Springs -- died after spending eight hours trapped in the plane's wreckage.

"It was a miracle," Marsh said. "Everything went just as it should go for us to make it. Looking back, I say, 'yeah, we were pretty damn lucky.'"

Marsh, 42, of Colorado Springs was released from the hospital Sunday night. He remains in Steamboat.

Steve Palmer and Moreau are still being treated at Yampa Valley Medical Center. On Tuesday, the trio granted their first interviews since the crash.

"I feel like a piñata," Moreau said of his condition. He sustained a bruised lung, concussion and broken arm.

Moreau sat upright in his hospital bed and had a bandage over his eye. He was engaged to Henrietta Palmer.

The group came to Steamboat to visit Henrietta Palmer's son, Joseph Almeida, who lives in Oak Creek with his wife, Carrie. Because of weather, Moreau flew back to Canon City Thursday and returned to Steamboat Saturday.

Moreau said he has logged more than 3,500 flight hours and has flown in and out of Steamboat eight or 10 times. "A good percentage (of the 3,500 hours) I have flown up mountains," Moreau said.

Moreau and the other passengers would not discuss what led to the crash or talk about the flight. In a 911 call made shortly after the plane went down, Steve Palmer said the plane did not get altitude fast enough to clear the mountains. Elevation at Steamboat Springs Airport is about 7,000 feet but planes must rise to 11,000 feet quickly in order to clear Rabbit Ears Pass and the Continental Divide.

National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration investigators went to the crash site Tuesday to begin their investigations.

Moreau said he traveled with Henrietta Palmer to New Mexico and into Arizona and the two would make trips to St. Louis to visit his parents.

Flying was something that gave Henrietta Palmer, a secretary for El Paso County Gas, great joy, Steve Palmer said.

"My mother loved to fly with Skip," said Steve Palmer, a student at Pikes Peak Community College. "She told me many times he was the best pilot in the world and trusted her life with him. She loved nothing more than flying with him."

Moreau owns a security system and ran for Fremont County Sheriff in November as a write-in candidate and ran for El Paso County Sheriff in 1994. He also owns a sky jumping school in Canon City.

Moreau, who flew planes for a search and rescue team, said he never imagined such a team would be needed to assist him.

Sporting a black eye and arm cast, Steve Palmer said Tuesday that the cell phone he used to make a 911 call immediately after the crash probably saved their lives.

Marsh, who was seated behind Steve Palmer, the co-pilot, was able to work open the door and squeeze out. He then helped Steve Palmer out. They then freed Moreau and found themselves in a thick stand of trees and four to five feet of snow.

"We wanted to stay as dry as possible," Steve Palmer said. "We tried to look and see where we were and how we were going to call for help. And to stay calm as a team."

Marsh said that Moreau had the most severe injuries among the three. Moreau was bleeding, so they wrapped his head and covered him in blankets.

Next the group found Moreau's cell phone and called 911.

With a battery about ready to die, Steve Palmer told dispatcher Jamie Wisecup that the plane had crashed about 10 miles east of the Steamboat Springs ski resort and that the plane had a locater. The cell phone lasted long enough for Steve Palmer to make several short 911 calls to help search and rescue helicopters find the crash site.

"My dad told me as a kid to stick (batteries) under my armpit to warm them up and I did," Steve Palmer said. "It was the only way to keep the cell phone on."

The group waited for help to arrive and built a fire to keep warm and attract rescuers.

Marsh said they threw oil onto the fire and used fiberglass to create black smoke.

They also burned books, manuals and twigs they gathered in the woods.

Marsh and Palmer took the extra socks off their feet and used them as gloves to pack the snow into an area where Moreau could lie down. One of the three dogs on board the plane curled up with Moreau to help keep him warm.

The group saw the helicopters circling above the site, but the helicopter could not see them. At 4:12 p.m. two search and rescue helicopters finally spotted the plane.

Jason Cobb, the general manager at Steamboat Snowmobile Tours where the rescue operation was staged, used a snowmobile to get to the scene at 4:45 p.m.

"I am thankful they did get there when they did, we wouldn't have made it," Steve Palmer said. "We were just burning up the last pieces of what we could find in the area. If they wouldn't have gotten there when they did, we would have been in trouble."

The trio praised the work of the agencies involved in the rescue including Routt County Search and Rescue and the Yampa Valley Medical Center staff.

They also thanked Sheriff John Warner for returning to the crash site Monday to retrieve the three pit bulls -- Cherokee, Pork Chop and Myro -- who are all in good condition at the Steamboat Springs Animal Shelter.

Wal-Mart provided the men with clothing.

Despite the ordeal, Marsh was in good spirits Tuesday.

"I fell out of the sky in four feet of snow, freezing. Now I am in a warm hospital," Marsh said Tuesday. "Wouldn't you be happy? I have good family and friends around. Steamboat, the whole town, has been amazing. We are all pretty dang happy to be here."

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