After 30 years, witnesses of plane crash still remember
Last updated 3/5/2021 at 3:35pm
Today, March 3, 2021, marks 30 years to the day that United Airlines Flight 585 crashed into Widefield Community Park. All told, 25 passengers died in the crash (not counting a body that was being transported for burial on the flight), and many residents of the area still remember what happened.
Several local residents, from eyewitnesses to first responders, shared their memories of that day.
A Journalist's Memories
Patricia St. Louis was a reporter and photographer for the Fountain Valley News at the time, and one of the journalists there to cover the event. She heard about it through a relative who lived roughly a block away from the site.
"She called and said, 'You better get down here. Something big just crashed,'" St. Louis remembered. "There were people, kind of running to the park from all directions, to see what happened."
When St. Louis arrived, Security Fire Department firefighters were already at the scene. St. Louis was photographing a piece of fuselage by a tree when a firefighter came and told her the area wasn't safe because of the toxic smoke in the air. After learning she was a reporter, he directed her to a safer spot. Other than the piece of fuselage, she doesn't remember much debris being visible except for one of the plane wheels at the edge of the crash site. St. Louis would only learn later that the plane was a Boeing 737, which surprised her.
"It looked like it was a smaller wheel, so we were thinking small plane," she said. "In our minds, you couldn't conceive or wrap your brain around the idea a huge plane just went down, because all you saw was a wheel and that piece of the fuselage. There weren't many parts anywhere, so everyone else thought a small plane went down."
St. Louis spent about an hour at the site, getting photos and taking notes. The next day she went to the newspaper office to write about what happened. Understandably, it was a hard task.
"Everyone in here had heard from someone who saw it or went by the park, phones were ringing," she recalled. "It was one of the biggest events that ever happened here, the biggest tragedy for sure."
First Responder Memories
Debra Baker, born and raised in Widefield, was working as a 911 dispatcher at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office on March 3, 1991.
"I was actually in church the morning of the plane crash," Baker said. "Our preacher received an urgent phone call and left the church services immediately. We didn't know at the time that it was due to the plane crash. If I had known, I would have immediately gone to work to help the other dispatchers who were working that morning.
"When I got to work that evening, I was filled in on what had happened. There were only two dispatchers working that morning and one of them happened to be out of the room on a break. There was only one dispatcher answering 911 calls and dispatching police and fire units to the scene. She told me that she couldn't even get out of her seat to open the back door to ask the other dispatcher to return to assist her. She said it was pure chaos, but she did what needed to be done to get people on the scene. Once the other dispatcher returned, they just worked through the continuous phone calls and dispatch responsibilities until other dispatchers arrived to assist."
After Baker arrived, the calls kept coming.
"We continued to receive calls in dispatch throughout the night from citizens negatively impacted by the crash," she said. "Some of those calls were advising us of pieces of plane parts found near their building, and some were hysterical calls because of found human remains. I just wanted to reach through the phone and hug the callers. It was a devastating time, not only for the families of the crash victims, but the community as a whole."
Like St. Louis, Baker was surprised to hear that the crashed plane had been a large commercial model.
"It astonished me that a plane the size of a 737 missed the Kokomo [Widefield] Apartments," she said. "Widefield Park isn't that big, and the apartments were right there and full of families. The crew of UA Flight 585 had to have a hand in that, for an out-of-control plane, barreling nose-first into the ground, to have such a precise point of impact. Twenty-five people died that day – but MANY lives were spared. This tragic event will always be remembered by the people who lost someone that day, and by the people who cared for those who had been lost."
Glen Silloway was one of the firefighters who arrived at the scene.
"I was a member of Security Volunteer Fire Department, however on this day I was on duty at Fort Carson Fire Department," Silloway explained. "It was planned to be a quiet Sunday at Butts Army Airfield Crash Station. That quickly changed with a crash phone alert. I remember thinking this was odd: it's Sunday morning and there is not a single helicopter up, plus we already had the 0900 daily crash phone test. Then, I saw the black column of smoke east of the installation through the open bay door. Our crew in Engine 3 and Crash 4 rapidly made our way to Widefield Park."
The situation was particularly hard for Silloway, because he had family nearby.
"I grew up on McBurney Boulevard in Widefield," he said. "Back then there was nothing but field between our back fence and the runway at the airport, right in the flight path. My parents were still living there when the crash happened. When I saw the black column of smoke, my first thought was fear for my parents, 'Oh no, not a plane crash in the flight path...' My heart was racing. As we made our way on to Fontaine Boulevard by the Widefield Mall, then past Watson Junior High, I had a total sense of relief. Now I could totally focus on the job ahead. We made our way around the apartments, as we were the first arriving aircraft crash fire rescue crews. We started fighting fire with our turrets on the truck, then pulled hose lines. We had no idea what kind of aircraft this was at this time, [we were] assuming it was a military aircraft. It wasn't until we started noticing the colors on scattered fuselage parts in the park that we found out this was actually a United 737. At the same time, I had a feeling of helplessness, being a paramedic and not needing any of those skills on this incident. It was a very long and emotionally draining day."
Silloway had been a firefighter for eight years at that point, and says the crash was the largest loss of life event he had been to. That changed 10 years later, when he deployed with the Colorado Urban Search and Rescue Team to the World Trade Center for 9/11.
"From my perspective as a responder, these incidents had a very eerie similarity," he said. "Although very different in magnitude, as a firefighter/paramedic I am trained and usually accustomed to mitigating the hazards, rescuing and treating patients. At both these incidents, I couldn't do that. It was so destructive and devastating. We were helpless – no rescues, no triage, no treatment.
"In my full career, there were tens of thousands of other incidents where our actions as a team changed people's outcomes to positives. I know fellow responders that still struggle with the crash of 585, even 30 years later, clear as it happened yesterday. Responders don't know what call is going to stick with them, haunt them or cause stress. It is different for everyone, but in a career it will happen. There are peer support and counseling to help now. For me, both 585 and World Trade Center will stick with me forever as tough incidents. However, I keep in mind the many other things, from saving a teenage soccer player from cardiac arrest, delivering babies and saving strangers' properties from fire."
While Silloway's story is a little unusual, he emphasized that he was just one of numerous people who helped.
"I was merely one out of hundreds of responders from multiple agencies at this incident, which lasted many days," he said. "Hundreds of dedicated professional responders... came together as a team. Each lives with the sights, the sounds, the smells... the memories of 585."
Several people shared stories of seeing the crash and the aftermath. Brian Groff remembered seeing the plane go down.
"I will never forget that Sunday morning going to church, stepping out of the vehicle and looking up in the sky and watching that plane bank left and then barrel roll into the ground," Groff said. "What a hard day that was."
Janet Hensley Jenks had a very unusual experience with the crash site.
"I remember so clearly that day," she said. "Driving down Grinnell, seeing all the cars parked along the sides of the road, we thought there must be a parade or other event we were unaware of. How scary and sad to learn a plane had crash landed at the nearby park!"
However, for her the event was just beginning.
"Days later, I got phone calls from friends expressing grief for my family and me," she said. "One of the crash victims was a 'Maurice Jenks,' the same name as my husband. It's so eerie when we go to Widefield Park and see my husband's named etched into the memorial plaque. I still pray for that Maurice's family when I read the name there."
Maurice Jenks also remembers the oddness of finding out someone with the same name had died in the crash.
"I think it was a doctor who lived in Denver, no relation at all that I'm aware of," Jenks said.
Since Jenks was a local (he graduated from Widefield High) and worked in the area, managing several fitness centers, a variety of people knew his name. The confusion led to some interesting responses.
"A lot of people called in, [including] relatives in Hawaii and California who were all really relieved to hear it wasn't me," Jenks said.
Although many people figured out it was someone else, Jenks still occasionally meets old acquaintances or former co-workers who thought he'd died in the crash. Raylene Starling Romero didn't find out the truth until 20 years later via Facebook.
"About six years ago his brother posted a picture of him with his brother Maurice," she recalled. "All these years I thought he was... I was so happy."
In 2017, while attending a garage sale, Jenks saw a man he'd worked with years before at a local fitness center.
"I recognized him and I said, 'Hey, Scott!'" Jenks remembered. "He said, 'I thought you died, man!'"
Jenks responded, "Nope, still kicking. I heard that, though."
Today, Jenks occasionally walks by the memorial gazebo with his dogs and notices the plaque. It still feels "a little eerie" to him.