Steamboat Springs "My heart sank, you know? My heart sank. It just sank."
Kevin Kleckler couldn't stop saying it. He was describing the moment he heard that a plane crash had killed Mark Klapperich, the man he called "Pipes." As Hayden High School athletics director, Kleckler worked closely with Klapperich, the announcer at the school's basketball and football games.
"Replacing him will be" - Kleckler paused - "there's no replacing him."
Mark Klapperich, 56, and his 26-year-old son, Levi, died when the twin-engine Cessna they were in crashed Sunday near Fish Creek Reservoir east of Steamboat Springs.
Levi Klapperich was flying the plane, and the pair had taken off from Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden. They never made it to their destination, Fort Collins. The two planned to run the Bolder Boulder 10K race Monday.
Kleckler had known Mark Klapperich for decades. Klapperich had run an Italian restaurant in town, served as mayor, was on various committees and announced Tigers games for about 22 years, Kleckler said.
"He was the best announcer just because he always kept in mind sportsmanship and being fair and equitable to our opponent and the Tigers," Kleckler said. "He was charismatic in his presentation. He will be missed, I tell you."
He described Mark Klapperich and his wife, Chris, as a dynamic duo. She often helped him at games, Kleckler said.
Levi Klapperich, who had lived in Durango but grew up in Hayden, also was involved in Hayden High School athletics. Kleckler coached him at football in the 1990s and described Levi Klapperich as an outstanding student-athlete who led by example.
"When he was a senior, he was my go-to guy," Kleckler said. "He was the team leader. When we needed something to happen on the field, we gave him the ball. He was an asset to the team, not only physically - he was a very gifted athlete - but also mentally. He was mentally tough; he understood the game well."
In high school, Levi Klapperich's passion was basketball, Kleckler said, describing him as a superb player.
That passion turned to flying, Levi Klapperich's friends said. He was a commercial pilot and a flight instructor.
"He's an excellent pilot," said Aaron Alpe, who attended high school and flight school with Levi Klapperich and has flown with him. "The guy's completely experienced. He flies every day of his life."
Dozens of searchers combed the hills and flew the skies for days after the plane disappeared Sunday morning. Aaron Alpe said his brother Jared Alpe, also a friend of Levi Klapperich's, was with the group that came across the wreckage Tuesday afternoon.
The plane crashed into rough, snowy terrain six miles east of Steamboat Springs and several miles from Buffalo Pass. Tim O'Brien, Routt County Search and Rescue incident commander, said a couple of clues helped searchers find the wreck.
"One person called in and described that plane going up in Fish Creek Falls," O'Brien said. "The other was the smell of fuel up there the day before. That was our connecting the dots and putting those clues together."
The crews had been searching a 4,000-square-mile area across nine Colorado counties and two Wyoming counties. Dozens of Mark and Levi Klapperich's friends and family members came to help, Aaron Alpe said.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the wreck, O'Brien said. Officials said Tuesday that they thought there had been a fire.
"As far as me surmising what happened, I would not be the one to do that," O'Brien said. "We just know he was a very good pilot, and we don't know what went wrong."
A memorial service for the Klapperichs is at 3 p.m. Saturday at the football field at Hayden High School, 495 W. Jefferson St.
Randy DeWall, who manages the Hayden Kum & Go, said Mark Klapperich was his best friend. He said Mark Klapperich loved cars and racing. DeWall had just bought tickets for them to go to the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, a racing event in July in Denver.
DeWall lost three siblings in the 1970s, and his father died several months ago.
"I've been through this many times, but this is probably just as hard as losing my own brother," DeWall said. "I haven't hardly slept, thinking what kind of fear went through his and Levi's mind as they knew they were going to hit the ground. You can't even imagine."
DeWall said he thought Levi and Mark had been close. Mark Klapperich was just "a wonderful, wonderful man," DeWall said.
"He was one in a million," he said. "He was a guy who would give you everything and ask for nothing. I can't even tell you how much I'm going to miss him."
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