Carbondale plane-crash survivor tells harrowing tale
CARBONDALE, Colorado ” Jonathan Holton of Carbondale has been in sticky situations before ” climbing sheer rock faces, skiing the Alaskan backcountry, training as an alpine rescuer.
But nothing could really prepare him ” and yet it all came in handy ” when he found himself on a mountainside after a small plane crash with a dying pilot who also happened to be the father of his best friend.
Barry Maggert, 47, a structural engineer and libertarian political activist in Carbondale, was killed when his Cessna 182 experienced engine trouble en route from Glenwood Springs to Boulder on May 8, and went down in the mountains outside Black Hawk. He and Holton were on their way to the college graduation of Maggert’s son, Lee Maggert, from the University of Colorado the next day.
“Falling out of the sky … there’s really no way to describe it,” said Holton, 23. “You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re in a jet and you enter some turbulence. I had that for 4,000 feet. You just feel completely helpless.”
The helpless feeling continued at times on the ground after he realized he was OK for the most part, though he had suffered a broken ankle and other bumps and bruises. But Holton had the situation under control as best he could, and, by all accounts, did the right things to try to save Maggert and to aid in his own rescue just a few hours after the crash.
“The real story is Jonathan,” Maggert’s wife, Renee Maggert, said at her husband’s memorial service.
Holton has had alpine rescue training experience, having worked last year with the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team, which his brother, Jason, heads.
“Jonathan had the forethought to take Barry from the plane and make a bed of pine needles and put extra clothing on him to keep him warm,” Renee Maggert said. “He ran up and down the hill every 15 minutes, with a broken foot, to keep in contact with emergency responders (via cell phone) and then would come back to check on Barry.”
Barry clung to life for about a half-hour after the crash before he died.
“I would not have wanted anybody else to be with my husband when he passed away,” Renee said of Holton. “I’m sorry that he had to experience that, but I’m glad he was there.”
“I had the opportunity to drive over to Boulder, but I had been on the road for the last month-and-a-half up to Alaska and back. So when I heard Barry was flying over I thought I’d go over with him,” he said.
It was to be just one of many flights he’d taken with Barry and his sons, twins Lee and Bryant, 23, and Taylor, 21.
Holton told National Transportation Safety Board investigators that, after taking off from the Glenwood Springs Airport around 3 p.m. on May 8, the plane entered clouds with light snow at about 16,000 feet after passing the Eagle County Airport. About that time he said the plane was having difficulty maintaining altitude and that the engine began to sputter.
Maggert told Holton that they were experiencing a mixture problem and he began adjusting the air/fuel mixture control.
“Barry was on it the whole time. … He was doing everything he could,” Holton said. “The plane began to nose over and was descending pretty fast. At one point we got blown backwards, and were actually pointing back to the west. That’s when I knew things weren’t good.”
The plane crashed at about 3:45 p.m. into a wooded area at 10,400 feet.
“(Barry) had gotten the air speed slowed down as much as he could, so we hit as soft as we could,” said Holton, who remained conscious after impact.
“It was like a bad dream. All I felt was snow through the windshield when we hit. I had a cut on my forehead and my shoulder was hurt, and I pretty much knew my ankle was broken.”
Holton was also covered with fuel that was leaking into the cockpit from the tank in the passenger-side wing. He exited the plane and went around the tail to pull Maggert from the plane.
Maggert suffered what would prove to be a fatal head injury and was unconscious, but was still breathing at that point, Holton said.
“I got him away from the plane as far as I could, because I was worried about the fuel leak with some of the electronics still working,” he said. “He was unconscious but still breathing, so I cleared his airway and checked for a response. I told him I was going back up to the plane to get some more clothing in case we were out there all night.”
Then he went to work trying to locate help.
He found the plane’s GPS unit, but it was in pieces. And he didn’t feel comfortable trying the radio in the plane because of the fire danger. He tried his cell phone but couldn’t get a signal, so he went to where Barry was and got his phone. He dialed 911 and eventually got connected with area dispatch.
“They asked all the usual questions: How many were on the plane? Is the pilot OK? What’s the condition of the plane? What’s your location?
“I kept losing the signal, but they eventually got a GPS location from the cell phone, and they told me to keep an eye out for a helicopter they were sending up,” Holton said. “Try to watch a kid with a broken foot do happy dances …”
The happiness faded, however, when he realized that Barry had stopped breathing.
“I cleared the snow around him to get level with his head and tried rescue breathing,” Holton said, casting a reflective glance upward, beyond the ceiling of a hometown coffee shop where he sat for an interview. “I tried. … I took a moment there and just had to recollect myself.”
The coroner later said there wasn’t any more Holton could do. “He told me I did everything humanly possible. That was helpful on some level,” he said.
Sadness again turned to elation on that mountainside when he heard a helicopter approaching.
“I saw it coming straight at me, and then it went up the wrong drainage,” Holton said.
He called dispatchers again and had them tell the pilot to come back around. A short time later the KMGH Channel 7 news helicopter that first spotted the crash site was right overhead.
“I knew they had seen me at that point,” he said. “They tried to hover, but they were really getting worked by the wind; it was still hucking pretty good.”
Then came about a 21/2 hour wait before the National Guard and Alpine Rescue arrived with a Blackhawk helicopter that was more stable in the rough weather, and better able to lift Holton off the mountain to the safety.
“There was that space in time where the phone was dead and I was just waiting,” Holton recounted. “It wasn’t totally clear how I was going to get out of there, and that’s when you just start thinking about your situation … things like, ‘Oh my God, my best friend’s dad just died in my hands.’
“You just have to flush that thinking out of your head and start doing the little things that you can fix in your area to make the situation as comfortable as you can. …,” he said. “I layered up with some more clothes and just tried to stay warm and eat something, and started to think about what I would need to do if they couldn’t get to me that night.”
It was close to dark when the Black Hawk helicopter arrived and lowered a device called a “force penetrator” down with a rescuer to bring Holton up.
“He asked me how my foot was, and I just said, ‘Screw my foot, let’s get out of here.'”
Back home amidst the support of friends and family, Holton is concentrating on getting better and making sure the Maggert family continues to have the support they need.
“I’ve known them since preschool,” said Holton, who graduated with Lee and Bryant from Roaring Fork High School in 2003. He graduated last year from Montana State University.
“I’m just concentrating on getting myself better, and hanging out with the Maggerts … just be a friend, let things sort out.
“All things considered, I walked away from that plane crash,” Holton offered. “All you have is time to think about it. I feel glad I was there, and I’ve been able to take the uncertainty away from a lot of the questions people have had.
“There’s really not a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda. … I wish Barry was here, but I’m glad I’m still here. And the rescue workers, those guys rock. They deserve more support than they get, that’s for sure.”
Holton had also considered pursuing a pilot’s license at some point, though his color blindness would likely have prevented that. At any rate, he’s not too interested in getting anywhere near a small aircraft for a while.
“That may change in time, but not right now,” he said.