Steamboat Springs A young couple from Windsor and a recreational pilot from Fort Collins are believed to be the victims in a plane crash Saturday near Rabbit Ears Pass.
Investigators would not release the names of the victims, saying dental records are required to confirm their identities.
However, Don Stickel of Illinois said investigators have indicated to his family that the people in the plane were Stickel's brother and sister-in-law, Keith and Kela Stickel of Windsor, and a pilot who worked with Keith Stickel at Hewlett Packard in Fort Collins. Don Stickel did not know the pilot's name.
Don Stickel said his brother's car and the pilot's car remain parked at an airport in Larimer County, where the threesome took off for a recreational daytrip to Steamboat Springs. Don Stickel said his brother had talked about going flying with a friend from work.
Fort Collins Downtown Airport manager Sharone Mekelberg said the pilot has a hangar there and she believes the group flew out Saturday morning.
However, no aviation investigators have been to the airport, she said.
The Stickel family said they became concerned when no one could get in touch with the couple and Keith Stickel did not show up for work Monday morning. Sheriff John Warner said investigators had narrowed down who the victims could be by Monday morning. When investigators began contacting employers, "we put two and two together."
After contacting Routt County authorities, it became clear to the family that the Stickels were in the crashed plane, Don Stickel said.
Keith and Kela Stickel, both 24, were married three years ago. Keith Stickel grew up in Ohio and graduated with an engineering degree from The Ohio State University. Kela Stickel was from Wisconsin and worked as a certified public accountant. Don Stickel said his brother and sister-in-law were outdoor enthusiasts who loved skiing, biking and water skiing. They had no children, but were about to become an uncle and aunt -- Don Stickel and his wife are expecting a child Aug. 1.
"They were living their dream," Don Stickel said. "Keith got his dream job at Hewlett Packard and they were living where they always wanted to live.
"They were very athletic and loved biking and skiing. They were both great people."
The small plane crashed about 11:15 a.m. Saturday in a heavily wooded area south of Rabbit Ears Pass, Warner said. Judging from photographs of the crash site, the plane clipped several treetops on its descent, and one of the wings was sheared off, Warner said. The wing was found 100 yards from the crash site. The force of the impact uprooted one tree.
The crash ignited a wildfire that burned everything in a quarter of an acre around the crash site. Warner said the bodies and plane were so badly burned identifications were not possible.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the site Monday to begin their investigations. The agencies closed the site to the media.
Jeff Koenig, a line technician at the Steamboat Springs Airport, said he saw a plane take off matching the description of the plane in the crash. The plane took off after 10:30 a.m. Saturday, he said, and had three passengers that had flown in from Fort Collins.
It was a 1975 Grumman airplane and Koenig said the party did not say if it was returning to Fort Collins. No contact with the plane was made after it took off, and no flight plans were filed.
NTSB Air Safety Investigator Brannon Mayer said fuel was not purchased at the Steamboat Springs Airport. Mayer arrived at the site Monday morning.
The plane crashed about 6.5 miles south of U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass and less than 250 feet from where a Piper Cherokee Saratoga went down Dec. 29, 2002. A 57-year-old woman died in that crash after being trapped in the plane for almost eight hours. Three others, all from the Colorado Springs area, survived and were rescued.
Steamboat Springs Airport manager Matt Grow said the area of the crash is a canyon that can be deceiving. While the canyon is wide initially, it narrows quickly and requires a rapid ascent to clear.
The Steamboat Springs Airport is at about 6,700 feet of elevation, but planes must be able to get up to more than 10,000 feet of elevation in order to clear the mountains to the east. Grow said it is recommended that planes flying out of Steamboat Springs fly north and west to gain altitude before turning back to the east and attempting to clear the Continental Divide.