Steamboat Springs resident Matt Kotts, right, visits the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver on March 5 with Civil Air Patrol historian Ed O'Brien. As an infant, Kotts survived the crash of Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217, a commercial flight that fell from the sky over Buffalo Pass during a snowstorm in December 1978. Two of the 22 on board lost their lives. The museum has opened an exhibit about the crash.

Courtesy photo

Steamboat Springs resident Matt Kotts, right, visits the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver on March 5 with Civil Air Patrol historian Ed O'Brien. As an infant, Kotts survived the crash of Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217, a commercial flight that fell from the sky over Buffalo Pass during a snowstorm in December 1978. Two of the 22 on board lost their lives. The museum has opened an exhibit about the crash.

Denver museum exhibit tells plane crash story

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Not far from Steamboat Springs sits a chunk of ground that holds an honored place in Civil Air Patrol history.

It's the crash site of Rocky Mountain Airways Flight 217, a commercial flight that fell from the sky during a snowstorm in December 1978. Only two of the 22 on board lost their lives, and that remarkable statistic makes it the largest single-mission save in Civil Air Patrol history, group historian Ed O'Brien said. The Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver recently added an exhibit about the crash.

The air patrol is 67 years old, O'Brien said. It has worked disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike, but the rescue on Buffalo Pass was its largest single mission, he said.

"When I found that out, I started working on this project about a year ago, actually 15 months ago, and found as many people as I've been able to find - survivors, rescuers, things like that," O'Brien said.

He built a 40-square-foot display at the museum, using photographs by Steamboat resident Rod Hanna and mementos from Steamboat resident Matt Kotts, who survived the crash as an infant. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

Some of the participants met Dec. 6 to commemorate the crash. Many also met March 5 at the museum.

"We tried to tell the actual story of the event and as it unfolded with each person who came to the scene telling a little bit more, and we came across just some amazing stuff," O'Brien said.

The crash of the deHavilland Twin Otter killed one Steamboat woman, Mary Kay Hardin. Pilot Scott Klopfenstein died from his injuries three days later. The massive rescue effort took place in a swirling snowstorm.

The Denver display includes two Silver Medals of Valor given by the Civil Air Patrol for the rescue. Don Niekerk and Jerry Alsum received them.

"In all of the Rocky Mountain region, there's been 14 of them awarded, and two are in this incident," O'Brien said.

Those awards are rare, he said.

"You have to be able to justify to get this award, saving a life with great risk to your own above and beyond the call of duty," O'Brien said. "So the fact that there were two on one mission is just never heard of."

The exhibit also includes pieces of the plane and parts of Kotts' stroller, later found at the side. Passengers used a wedding dress belonging to LuAnn Mercer to block snow and rain from entering the plane. That's also on display.

Watching people share the stories of that night has been amazing, O'Brien said.

"It's been a great catharsis for a lot of people," he said. "For a lot of people, I think it's been tough."

- To reach Blythe Terrell, call 871-4234

or e-mail bterrell@steamboatpilot.com

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