Butte mourns victims of tragic plane crash
By Kimball Bennion
There’s something about a cemetery that makes people take notice as they drive by. But on this day, drivers on Harrison Avenue in Butte were practically obliged to slow down, crane their necks and glance at the crosses.
They weren’t staring at the hundreds of stone crosses behind the gates, but rather, at the wooden ones in front.
Early Monday morning, someone placed 17 crosses in a line in front of the gates of Holy Cross cemetery, the site of a plane crash that killed what was then thought to be 17 people on board.
At a press conference later that day, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker confirmed 14 were killed: seven adults and seven children. The victims were a group from California on their way to a ski resort outside Bozeman. The pilot, for an unknown reason, decided to re-route to Butte and, no more than 1,000 feet from Bert Mooney Airport, the single engine Pilatus PC-12 crashed into the cemetery on Sunday afternoon.
Immediately after the crash, speculation abounded. Were there any survivors? How many were killed? By Sunday evening, most news outlets were reporting that 17 were dead, no survivors. By Monday morning, the front page of Butte’s local newspaper, the Montana Standard, said the number was 16. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that the names and ages of the 14 people on board were confirmed.
For the person or people who placed the 17 crosses, there was no time to sort out the details. A tragedy happened at home. There was only time to mourn.
Rosenker held the press conference at Bert Mooney Airport on Monday afternoon that confirmed the number dead at 14 and updated the room full of reporters on the status of the investigation. A few new facts came to light: The pilot was approximately 65 years old and had over 2,000 hours of flight time in the aircraft that went down; the plane was designed to hold 10 people only; there was a possibility of ice on the wings before it went down.
But the plane had no flight data recorder and no cockpit voice recorder, and the cause of the crash is still unclear.
“This will be a long and tedious investigation,” Rosenker said. “Very thorough.”
Next to the ad-hoc pressroom where Rosenker took questions was the Silver Eagle Grill, an airport restaurant where Misty Dodd works.
Her customers were mainly reporters on Monday, and after the conference ended, she immediately asked for updates from anybody with a notebook. Her eyes were red and slightly swollen, looking for any source of commiseration.
“I just can’t stop crying,” she said.
Dodd has three kids of her own, ages 9, 15 and 16, and she said they love to ski. She doesn’t know any of the victims, but the crash clearly affected her deeply.
“I’m praying for all the families,” she said. “That’s all I’m doing.”
The families of the victims went to the site of the crash Monday morning with NTSB investigators after being notified of the tragedy. Newly fallen snow lay in patches across the brown grass, and a finger-numbing chill that felt as gray as the sky saturated the day.
It was a bleak Monday morning on Harrison Avenue, but for so many of the businesses on the street only a few feet away from the cemetery, it was still Monday morning. People still had to go to work with an active police investigation staring them in the face and reporter after reporter knocking on their doors.
Ruby Ehman was at home playing in the backyard with her kids when the plane flew over their heads and crashed 500 feet away from her house.
“We were jumping on the trampoline and it flew right over us,” she said. Then she said she heard a sound like a gunshot, and saw the flames.
On Monday, she went to work at the Express Lane gas station, across the street and a few hundred feet north of the site.
“It’s too close for comfort,” Ehman said.
Del LeVasseur, a salesman at Mick O’Brien Used Car and Truck Center also saw the crash happen when he was driving down Harrison Street, and the next day, he went to work directly across the street from the crosses, the police cars and yellow tape.
“It’s devastating,” LeVasseur said, “and I can’t escape it. It’s right across the street.”
LeVasseur said he first saw the plane coming down at a 90-degree angle and then looked away so he could pay attention to the road.
“I thought for a millisecond, ‘It might be a stunt plane,’” he said. “That was all I could think. I was trying to make sense out of the 90-degree bank. I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll pull out.’”
When he looked again, it began to level out and sunk below the trees.
“When I saw him coming down, towards the tree line, I knew it was over,” LeVasseur said. “I was just in shock. It was something that’ll never go away. The sight of that plane leveling towards the ground, that’s going to be with me for a long time.”
Ehman and LeVasseur are trying live their lives while the scene across the street reminds them of fresh memories. Others are compelled to visit the cemetery’s gates. The parking in front of Holy Cross is blocked off as well, but some park a good block from the crosses, wreathes and flowers in hand as they walk in the chilly weather to the gates. Some leave something of their own: a candle, a note reading, “Our prayers are with you, God Bless.” Some just come to look.
A woman with a camera around her neck and a bundled toddler in her arms slowly approaches. She sets the boy down and kneels on one knee, putting her camera at the crosses’ level. She snaps a few photos and gets up to leave. Picking up the child, she says to him, “I know. It’s sad.”
She walks back to her van and continues to drive into a gray city, mourning a tragedy that hit too close to home.