Steamboat Springs A small plane that crashed near Rabbit Ears Pass Sunday never gained enough altitude to make it over the mountains after taking off from Steamboat Springs Airport, one of the passengers said in a frantic 911 call.
Steve Palmer, 22, said the plane was trying to make it over the mountains so it could head south. Palmer was among four people and three dogs on the plane.
His mother, 57-year-old Henrietta Palmer, died of injuries she sustained in the crash. The other passengers and the dogs survived.
"We didn't have enough altitude to clear the trees and we came out rough and we went end over end," Palmer told the dispatcher in the 911 call that was made at 1:05 p.m. Sunday, just minutes after the plane went down.
"We need help bad, my mom's not going to make it, so get somebody out here quick," he said.
The pilot, 53-year-old Lloyd "Skip" Moreau, flew through the trees to dislodge the wings, where the fuel was stored, and slow the plane. The plane landed between two trees.
Henrietta Palmer was wedged in the plane for nearly eight hours until firefighters were able to cut her free. She was unconscious but breathing, rescue workers said. She died late Sunday night from head injuries due to blunt force trauma, Coroner Doug Allen said.
The Piper Cherokee Saratoga cleared the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, but it did not make it over the Continental Divide.
The plane went down in Harrison Creek drainage due south of 10,559-foot Walton Peak and about seven miles south of the west summit of Rabbit Ears Pass.
Steamboat Springs Airport Manager Matt Grow said that the plane had flown in and out of the airport several times this month. It last arrived Saturday evening and flew out a little before 1 p.m. on Sunday.
The plane was traveling from the Steamboat Springs Airport to the Canon City Airport. All of the passengers were from Colorado Springs.
National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration officials arrived Monday night and are expected to begin their investigation today. Routt County Director of Emergency Services Chuck Vale said insurance companies typically remove the plane wreckage.
Vale added that U.S. Forest Service officials are concerned the 80 gallons of plane fuel could leak into Harrison Creek.
Moreau, Steve Palmer and Neil Marsh, 42, survived the crash. The three dogs -- all pit bulls -- were rescued Monday and taken to Steamboat Veterinary Clinic.
Vale described the dogs as fairly large.
The pilot, Moreau, remains at the hospital in fair condition in the intensive care unit. He had a bruised lung, concussion and a broken arm. He also had facial and scalp lacerations, a fractured left rib and hypothermia and frostbite on his toes.
The Fremont County man ran as a write-in-candidate for county sheriff this November, but did not get elected. He ran in 1994 for sheriff in El Paso County. He owns a security company in Colorado Springs and is an instructor for a sky jumping company near the Canon City Airport. Moreau is also a pilot and ground instructor and won an Army Bronze Star for Heroism in the Vietnam War.
Steve Palmer suffered strains to his feet, his left knee, elbow and wrist. He also suffered a neck strain and a chest wall contusion. He was listed in good condition at the hospital.
Marsh was treated and released Sunday.
None of the passengers would comment except to release a joint statement thanking the Routt County Search and Rescue Team and the Yampa Valley Medical Center.
But the 911 call provides a telling transcript of what the passengers went through. Dispatcher Jamie Wisecup talked with Steve Palmer during the 911 call.
"This was just an amazing call -- first of all that they were even alive," Wisecup said. "It was just tremendous the resources that came together immediately."
Desperately worried that his cell phone's battery was going to die, Steve Palmer tried to give as much information to Wisecup as quickly as he could. He told her the plane was about 10 miles east of the Steamboat Springs ski resort. He said the passengers had a broken arm, broken toes, multiple lacerations and a person unconscious.
He said no flight plan had been filed and that there were no flares on the plane. He said the plane did have an on-board locator. But he said the passengers could not make out any landmarks and he was not sure the plane wreckage could be spotted from the air.
"Can they find us? Can they find us?" Steve Palmer asked. "I think my leg is broken. Can they get a fix on us or not? We need to know. Hurry. We're going to run out of battery."
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, was the first to arrive on the scene at 4:45 p.m.
At 5 p.m. a helicopter dropped three search and rescue workers -- Jeanne Power, Dave Hesselton and Jamie Knealt -- in chest high snow about a half mile from the site. To get to the crash, the rescuers were taken by snowmobile and had to hike up a steep slope for 100 yards.
Rescue workers battled a snowstorm and rugged terrain to free Henrietta Palmer from the plane and to take the four passengers to ambulances waiting on Rabbit Ears Pass. Power, who has worked with search and rescue for more than 10 years, said by the time she arrived, snow was falling rapidly and the wind had picked up. "It was pretty extreme weather," she said. "I don't know if I have ever been in a situation like that."
Power said the crew worked on keeping a fire going and treating hypothermia. Power said passengers were in thin coats, jeans and t-shirts.
For the next few hours, the group worked to find a different route out that would not take the passengers over the steep slope and require the snowmobiles to jump Harrison Creek.
It was a plan that changed every half hour, Power said, as the team figured out a way to transport the four passengers out on snowmobiles.
"We would make a plan then have to change the plan because of weather and the passengers' conditions," Power said. "It was really a test for us."
The rescuers had to wait until firefighters came on snowmobiles before extracting Henrietta Palmer from the plane.
The plane came to a rest without its wings and upside down in the snow. The firefighters had to cut through the wall of the airplane to get her out.