Saturday, July 7, 2018

Lost Plane in Colorado

Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., standing next to the Torres family's Piper Cherokee, 1969 (Torres family photo).
Lost Plane in Colorado
memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

 Preface:
          Everyone knows that I like an adventure. The most memorable, hair-raising adventure I ever had was when I was eighteen years old. My younger brother and I, along with two friends stumbled upon a plane crash in the remote wilderness of Colorado. The plane had been missing for over seven months.
          Numerous times I have written down memories and thoughts of the events surrounding the tragedy and our discovery. I revisited the crash site in 2009 and eventually made contact with the surviving family in 2014.
          The article below is one that I wrote for the newspaper in La Veta, Colorado, which is the largest town in the area near the crash site. I provided the basic facts around the crash and discovery, but did not go into any detail. I’ve also added some updates at the end of the article.

 1969 plane crash site near Cuchara revisited
by Greg Larson
Special to THE [LA VETA] SIGNATURE – August 13, 2009

           Discovering the crash site of a lost plane is something a person doesn’t forget. I have often thought about the crash I helped discover almost 40 years ago. Something compelled me to return and see what remained at the site.
          The single-engine plane crashed during a snowstorm just north of Trinchera Peak [in southern Colorado] on a ridge line above Bear Lake on October 23, 1969. The flight originated from Belen, New Mexico, with the intended destination of Denver, Colorado. Four persons perished in the crash: Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., Al Torres, Sr., Lindy Garcia, all three from Belen, NM, and Tom Mayhew of Farmington, NM. Their families had searched the mountains of New Mexico for months, and the First National Bank of Belen had offered $1,000 for information leading to the location of the missing aircraft.
          We discovered the plane crash in May of 1970 on a camping trip with my brother and two friends. At the age of eighteen, I organized the trip along with my younger brother, Tim, who was fourteen. We each had invited a friend from our hometown of Garden City, Kansas, to go camping with us in the Cuchara area. After loading up my ’63 Plymouth, we drove to Bear lake and pitched our tent in the snow, unaware of the missing plane.
          One the morning of May 29, 1970, we discussed where to hike. My brother and I had a strong disagreement on which direction to take. I wanted to hike some of the trails, but Tim wanted to strike out for the ridge. We final agreed to hike to the ridge (12,000 ft. elevation), but I insisted that I would decide when to turn back for camp if we ran into bad weather or started to run out of time.
          The hike through the woods and up to the timberline was difficult; at times we waded through waist-deep snow. After climbing to the top of the basin, Tim and his friend, Craig Letourneau, crossed the ridge first and discovered the crash site on the west side of the mountain. The plane had slammed into the steep, rocky slope about 200 feet below the ridge.
          When my friend, Ron Rupp, and I crossed the ridge, we saw the wreckage; a gruesome scene in the melting snow. It was what I would term a “Twilight Zone” experience. Over the years I’ve tried to blank out what I saw there.
          After recovering the plane’s log book and some identification from one of the bodies, we hurried down the mountain during an afternoon snow squall. Ron and I drove to the general store in Cuchara and contacted the forest ranger.
          Recently [July 2009], I traveled with my wife from Overland Park, Kansas, to revisit the site. When we viewed the basin and ridge high above Bear Lake, I feared we might not be able to find the crash site.
          Three things had to fall into place for a successful revisit: we would need enough physical strength and endurance to climb up to the ridge, my memory would have to direct us to the crash location, and the weather would have to cooperate.
Wife, Gretta, hiking above the clouds and up to the ridge.
          On July 21, 2009, we began an early ascent of the mountain, hiking above the timberline and the clouds and climbing up the steep alpine meadows. We reached the ridge and searched the western slopes for the crash site, but found nothing. As I scanned the slopes one last time, I saw what appeared to be a stake on a cairn below the ridge, and soon realized that it was a metal cross with a rectangular plaque. I carefully climbed down the scree on the steep slope to inspect the memorial.
Greg standing on the ridge at a rock cairn located above the crash site.
          The plaque was inscribed, “IN MEMORY OCTOBER 1969.” The names of the four victims were engraved on the steel, with the birth year next to each name. I was surprised to find only a small amount of debris at the site. Remnants scattered aroundthe memorial included pieces of metal, plastic, and electrical parts.
Memorial cross at the crash site.
          As I looked on the plaque at the birth year of Al (Stacy) Torres, Jr., I was struck by the irony that we were the same age on the date of the crash.
          I’ve had time to reflect upon my revisit to the scene, but questions remain. Why did the victims fly into a snowstorm? What happened to the crash debris? Where was the engine block? What directed us to discover the crash in the vast wilderness? Some questions have no answers. The unforgettable events and experiences surrounding the crash will always be shrouded with some mystery.

Author’s update, July 1, 2018:
          Standing alone at the memorial on the mountainside in 2009 was a deeply moving experience for me. I realized that the family must have built, carried and installed the cross at the crash site. The unanswered questions gnawed at me, so I began a slow search to connect with the Torres family. That search, in itself, was an adventure. In 2014, I received a phone call from Nolbert Torres, the oldest surviving brother. We wept on the phone together as we remembered the past and shared about our families.
          In the Fall of 2014, I traveled to Belen, New Mexico, and spent three days with Nolbert (Nols) and the Torres family, asking questions and swapping family stories. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me as if I were a long-lost family member.
          On the last evening, my brother Tim was able to join me and the Torres family at Nols’ brother’s house (Matt Torres) for a pot-luck dinner and family gathering. We sat out in the cool air of the Rio Grande valley and talked into the night about the stories surrounding the crash. For many younger members of the family, it was the first time they had heard all of the details surrounding the tragedy.
From left to right: Therese Salazar, Bernadette Baca, Matthew Torres, Charlotte Torres - mother of the Torres family, Gerard Torres, Tim Larson, Greg Larson, Nolbert Torres.
           My intention has been to write a detailed book about the Larson and the Torres families and how their lives intersected on a remote ridge in the wilderness, but as we all know, sometimes life’s events create major roadblocks and prevent focus on what seems important.
          My hope now is to finish the project – to provide my perspective from both sides of the tragedy. It is a rich story of two thriving “baby-boomer” families from different areas of the U.S., dealing with and overcoming the horror of death and destruction of the crash, then re-connecting forty years later to give thanks for the lives we have lived. It has definitely been an adventure that continues to this day and beyond.
A timeless view on a serene day at 12,000 ft., in an area of the Sangre de Cristo mountains where severe and unpredictable weather frequently occurs.
 

5 comments:

  1. That's an amazing story, Greg. And well told. What an experience. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Hello Mr. Larson. Thank you for sharing you story. I am a granddaughter of Al Torres Sr. but was never able to meet him. I appreciate your writing and your photographs. My mother took us to the crash site when we were children. I look forward to your future book on the subject very much.

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  4. I was very close to the Torres family and my cousins were neighbors to Lindy. Have you met any of Lindy's family? He was a gregarious, happy guy who would allow us to eat a bellyful of his little green apples and created the most magical, towering flocked tumbleweed snowman for our delight. Thank you for sharing this bittersweet memoir. You colored in more of a very significant memory shared by many. God bless you. Lynda Sparber Witz

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  5. We used to swim in Lindy's pool and play marco polo. They were family to us, not blood related. It didn't matter,Lindy's mom Emma Garcia, was our Nana. It was never the same after Lindy's death, she was in mourning for years to come.The beautiful day's of growing up across the street from the Garcias will always hold near and dear to my heart. Thank You Yvonne Morales

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