Two soldiers from an Army helicopter that crashed into a Colorado mountain earlier this month were alive when a group of college students who had been building a hiking trail nearby reached them, but the pair were too badly injured to survive.
One of the soldiers died soon after the trail-building crew reached them. But another soldier remained alive until a helicopter ambulance arrived to help, Lake County sheriff Edward Holte and U.S. Forest Service district ranger Jon Morrissey said Thursday. That soldier died after the medical helicopter -- bound for a Denver hospital -- was rerouted to a nearer Breckenridge medical center when his condition worsened. He died shortly after arriving at the medical center.
The two other soldiers on board the Black Hawk from Fort Campbell, Ky. also died following the Aug. 19 crash on the 14,421-foot peak of Mount Massive.
Terrance Geer of Casper, Wyo., Robert Johnson of Seattle, Paul Jackson of Lancaster, Md., and Chad Tucker of Titusville, Fla. were highly decorated soldiers with extensive combat experience. They were members of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, created more than 20 years ago after a failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran.
Authorities in this historic mining town didn't know which two soldiers were the ones who initally survived and spent time with the nine students on the crew-building team; the crew was working with a Forest Service ranger and two members of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative on the project. Morrissey said a dozen other people hiking on the mountain also joined the group at the crash site. A county search and rescue team reached the site about four hours after the crash, Holte said.
Morrissey said the students were able to talk to at least one of the soldiers.
The helicopter hit Colorado's second-highest mountain just below the summit on a steep section of loose rock, Holte said. He said it snowed at least two nights during the week-long recovery operation and rigging had to be set up so the wreckage could be safely removed.
Colorado National Guard pilots, trained to fly in high-altitude conditions, ferried about 100 people and 10,000 pounds of cargo during the week, said Capt. Troy Brown.
The last pieces of the Black Hawk were removed Wednesday night, slung in nets under truck-like Chinook helicopters and then driven to Fort Carson. The Army is investigating the crash and hasn't released any information on what may have caused it.
Lt. Col. Ross Davidson, operations officer for Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Division, praised Leadville authorities, the Forest Service and the Guard for helping the recovery effort.
After the crash, county public works director Brad Palmer rounded up a school bus and driver to meet a helicopter carrying a dozen Fort Carson soldiers who arrived to hike up the mountain because it was dark and too dangerous to fly. The soldiers started hiking up at 3 a.m. the following morning with 50-pound packs. Six had to turn back because of injuries or altitude sickness but the others continued to the top, Davidson said.
Palmer also used his county radio to help relay messages between military helicopters landing at the county airport to Army officials at Mount Massive and worked late nights to bring fuel to the operations center eventually set up at the county's gravel pit.
His 19-year-old son Nicholas J. Palmer, a Marine lance corporal, was killed by a sniper in Al Anbar province in Iraq on Dec. 16, 2006. His memories were stirred when the last soldier killed in the crash was brought down from the mountain.
"I thought about my son. I thought about the parents having to wait," Palmer said.
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