Families hike mountain where loved ones died | VailDaily.com

Families hike mountain where loved ones died

Dennis Webb
Post Independent Photo/Kelley Cox Holding an eagle feather in his left hand, Ute Indian Kenny Frost offers a blessing to those who died on Storm King Mountain, their families and those who visit the site where 14 firefighters died on July 6, 1994.

Family members who gathered to remember a painful past on Storm King Mountain Tuesday also began to share their story with a new generation.Ten years to the day after 14 firefighters died on July 6, 1994, children of those who died on the mountain were among the numerous family and friends who hiked the trail to see where their loved ones died.”It was time to bring them up here. They’re old enough now to understand things,” said Bob Mackey, speaking of his grandchildren, Bob and Leslianne.The two are the children of Don Mackey, the Montana smokejumper who helped direct others to safety before losing his life with other firefighters below a ridge that provided an escape route.As the two lanky Bob Mackeys stood on that ridge Tuesday, separated by the years but similarly dressed in camouflage green colors and ball caps, they remembered the man who represented the generation between them.”He wants to learn what happened,” Mackey said of his grandson, whom he took to various spots on the mountain, explaining the events of 10 years ago.Don Mackey’s children “never knew him,” Mackey said.But the younger Bob said he did in fact have memories of going hunting and fishing with his father before he died, when Bob was just 4.Don’s father said he continues to share those activities with his grandson today.”He can’t wait to go. He loves this stuff just like his dad,” Mackey said.

The youngest Don was largely silent Tuesday as he took in the scene, at one point pulling out his knife to whittle away at a stick, lost in his thoughts. His grandfather said Leslianne, who headed down the mountain earlier, was more emotional.Her 16th birthday is today; she turned 6 a day after her father’s death.Also on the mountain Tuesday was Andy Tyler, who lost his father Rich when he was just a year old.”It’s fun looking at the things he was climbing, but it is a little sad, too,” Tyler told an Associated Press writer.Hundreds visit siteSome 250 people visited the site of the deaths late Monday and on Tuesday morning. Many of them started the hike at the break of dawn, and a few, such as the Mackeys, spent the night camped on the ridgetop.Early risers were treated to a surprise spectacle: Joe Brinkley flew overhead in a DC-3 smokejumper plane to drop 14 purple streamers over the mountain in honor of the dead.Levi Brinkley was among the fallen, and he was the oldest of three triplets, who also included Joe. Joe is now a smokejumper; Levi was among the nine Prineville Hotshots who died on Storm King.Joe’s father, Ken, said his son wanted to jump from the plane, but his father advised against it. “I said, ‘Joe, this will be the day someone breaks a leg,'” and recommended the ribbons instead.Later in the morning many saw a remembrance of another sort. Ute Indian Kenny Frost returned to the mountain as he does each year to keep a promise to the families to perform an Indian blessing where they died.

Frost said he feels an increasing obligation to perform the blessing as it becomes harder for aging family members to visit Glenwood and climb the mountain.”It’s just going to break their hearts that they can’t come up here,” he said.As Frost strode up the hill, Ken Brinkley took a moment to thank him on behalf of the families.”It means a lot,” Brinkley said.Further up, Jim Roth thanked Frost as well. Roth’s brother, Roger, an Iroquois, was a Storm King victim.Below the ridge, Frost found where Terri Hagen and Kathi Beck died within a few feet of each other. Hagen also was Iroquois, and Beck was interested in Native American culture.Frost pulled out tobacco, a sage smudge stick and an eagle feather and performed his ceremony, which including words and song. He told those watching how the spirits of the dead remained on the mountain, and how the wind would pick up during the ceremony, which it did as if on cue.The firefighters “loved the land so much that unfortunately the land went ahead and took them. These things can happen, and unfortunately these things happened here,” Frost said.To others also, such as Ken Brinkley, the mountain is “a sacred place.” But Gene Johnson, who lost his son, Rob, on Storm King, views it a bit differently.”It’s where they died. Some people feel their spirits are still here. I think he’s moved on to bigger and better places,” he said of his son.Having worked in structural firefighting himself, he sees signs that the lessons of Storm King are being learned, and that firefighting is safer today. Johnson has another son, Tony, who survived the Storm King fire and is a smokejumper now.

“I worry more about him out on the freeway than I do firefighting,” Johnson said.Yet another father of one of the fallen, Randy Dunbar, fingered an oak brush leaf handed to him by someone who commented on the flammability of the fuel that blew up 10 years ago, claiming Dunbar’s son Doug as one of its victims.”I don’t like it,” Dunbar said of the oak brush, handing the leaf back. “But that’s what lives here.”A 35-year Forest Service veteran, Dunbar was part of a large contingent of family and friends who came to remember Doug.”This is a gathering for Doug. Everybody wanted to be here,” he said.On the ridgetop, Dunbar met Richard Andrews, whom Doug babysat when Richard was young. Now Richard is on the same Prineville Hotshot crew on which Doug served.Silent sentinelsThose young, fit Hotshots were stationed all along the Storm King trail Tuesday, handing out water and keeping an eye out for the safety of the public, much as their predecessors were looking out for Glenwood Springs a decade earlier. Young, fit, polite, male and female, all wearing blue helmets and Prineville Hotshot T-shirts, they served as eerie reminders of their predecessors who never made it off the mountain.One of them, Clay Goodman, said he was happy to help out.

Goodman was a child when the nine Hotshots died.”My mom was friends with quite a few of them and I heard about it a little bit,” he said.Just down the ridge from Goodman, firefighter Joe Leete of Jefferson County stared at the crosses, surveyed Storm King’s treacherous terrain and lamented that fellow firefighters died here for reasons that he believes were avoidable.”We’re just responsible for taking those lessons back with us and making sure things like this don’t happen again,” he said.Family members such as Dunbar and Johnson praised Glenwood for continuing to honor Storm King’s dead today.”They said they wouldn’t forget and they haven’t,” said Johnson. “There’s not many towns that would do this,” he said.Don Mackey’s father, Bob, hoped to come down off the mountain in time for an evening remembrance being planned by the city. But he didn’t want to leave until after late afternoon, the time of the blowup 10 years ago that killed his son and 13 others.As he sought to pass on the story of Storm King to a grandson who he hoped might continue to passing it on to future generations, Mackey said the mountain is a hard place to come to, but also hard to leave.”I’ve always had that feeling, because you don’t know if it’s going to be the last time or not,” he said.

Support Local Journalism