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Mountain of memories

by webmaster |

GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Leslianne Mackey hiked down Storm King Mountain Tuesday, after her first climb to the slope where her father died 10 years ago to the day.

"The feelings I have are kind of mixed," said the teenager, who turns 16 today. "I'm happy, but it brings back memories of when my father died."

Smokejumper Don Mackey and 13 other wildland firefighters died on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994, in the nation's worst wildfire tragedy in modern times. All members of crack units called in from around the West, the firefighters were trapped by 2,000-degree flames pushed by 45 mph winds.

The disaster led to an ongoing series of reports and recommendations mandating safety in the inherently dangerous business of fighting wildfires. Grief and regret still haunt firefighting supervisors, who debate whether the tragedy could have been prevented.

For the firefighters' families, the anguish of the tragedy has remained in their souls for 10 years, as the most heavy and painful memory of their lives.

At a remembrance program Tuesday evening in Glenwood Springs' Two Rivers Park, more than 350 people, including contingents of wildland firefighters, honored the Storm King 14 with a short, heartfelt service the families had requested.

As evening shadows lengthened and the sun finally dropped behind Storm King Mountain and other peaks west of town, Sonny LaSalle, retired supervisor of the surrounding White River National Forest, assured the gathering that "lives have been saved" because of the emphasis on firefighting safety since the tragedy.

Bob Zanella, who was mayor a decade ago, told the families, "We hope we did proper honor to your loved ones," then added, "and to our loved ones," acknowledging the town's embrace of the firefighters and their families.

The anniversary was "a remarkable renewing of old friendships," said Sandy Dunbar, mother of fallen firefighter Doug Dunbar.

"So glad we came," said Ruth Radford, mother of Rob Browning, another of the 14.

Leslianne Mackey and her brother, Robert, 14, made their first ascent of the mountain Monday with six other family members so they could camp overnight near the cross marking the spot where Don Mackey died. The long summer night at 6,700 feet was windy and rainy, and they reminisced about Don Mackey, shedding tears over some stories and laughing at others. They left flowers, a feather and American flags on his cross, and they wrapped a parachute cord around it before starting down the trail Tuesday morning in the direct Colorado sun.

"Now that I have been there, it's kind of a relief," Leslianne Mackey said. "I'll come again, definitely, maybe in another five or 10 years."

U.S. Forest Service rangers and other officials along the trail of almost two miles on the west edge of Glenwood Springs estimated 200 hikers set out Tuesday, beginning about dawn.

Some of the hikers were townspeople who remember both the inferno on Storm King Mountain, which threatened homes, and 2002's Coal Seam Fire, which destroyed houses in the same neighborhoods of the central Colorado resort community.

"Right after Storm King happened, it was hard because we felt guilty these 14 firefighters died to save our homes, and that fire seemed so far from town that it could never get there," said local resident Beth Dardynski.

"Then, with the Coal Seam Fire, we saw how fast a fire could move. But I would rather have my house burn than risk another firefighter's life."

Throughout the years, Storm King Mountain has become a destination for wildland firefighters from across the nation.

Dave Walker, a county ranger with the North Carolina Forest Service, said he and his family planned their Colorado vacation to include hiking the mountain on the anniversary.

"Maybe I can pick up something for the people I supervise and work with. The most important thing is to avoid something like this from happening again," Walker said.

"And I want to pay my respects."

Townspeople, who have formed close friendships with the firefighters' families, hosted a private picnic for their visitors before the remembrance service.