For the first time ever, this past Thursday morning I hiked all the way to the granite crosses on Storm King Mountain that mark where 14 young men and women died fighting a wildfire on July 6, 1994.
I don’t know why it’s taken me 20 years to make it beyond the overlook up that final stretch of steep, dusty trail. It’s not that I’m incapable of the physical exertion. I’m a competitive trail runner, and I run those kinds of mountain trails all the time.
Like most people who were here 20 years ago, I remember exactly where I was when it happened.
I had the day off from my newspaper job, and at the time was doing a weekly radio news magazine for community radio station KDNK in Carbondale.
It included a piece about a special Freedom Festival that had taken place in Glenwood Springs’ Two Rivers Park on July 2, featuring one of the first renewable energy and sustainability expos in the valley.
That date is also etched in my mind, because I remember being in the newsroom at the Glenwood Post writing my newspaper story on the festival when a rather intense lightning storm passed through the Glenwood area.
No rain, but lots of dry lightning peppered the hillsides. I remember commenting to others in the newsroom, “this can’t be good.” It was later determined that the fire on Storm King Mountain was sparked by that very lightning storm.
The afternoon of July 6 around 4 p.m., as I was busy writing and editing my final radio script for that evening’s segment, an eerie wind blew through the west-facing upstairs window in the Dinkel Building where I was sitting. One of those winds that stops a window fan dead in its spin.
A short time later, what had been a small column of smoke drifting with the breeze from Storm King west of Glenwood Springs for the past three days had grown into mushroom cloud so big it appeared from Carbondale like it was just outside town.
A phone call or two confirmed that several firefighters who were on the mountain were missing and, radio being the most immediate news medium in those days, I was on the air at 5 with some of first reports of what was happening.
Little did I or anyone watching from afar know at the time how bad it was. After my radio obligations were finished, I was off to Glenwood to join my fellow reporters at the Post to get the story, including reactions from the local community.
Soon, we learned that indeed some of the firefighters had perished on the mountain, though we didn’t know exactly how many, who they were or where they were from.
The ensuing days were crazy, as covering any major disaster can be for a news reporter.
One of my assignments was to fly with a local delegation to Prineville, Oregon, just three days after the tragedy to cover a memorial service for the nine members of the Prineville Hot Shots who were among the fallen firefighters.
It was there, removed from ground zero and the onslaught of national media attention, that it really hit me personally. There was a magnitude to the loss that some may never come to understand.
I witnessed its impact on the families and those who knew these brave young men and women, many of them about the same age as me at the time, who would forever be remembered in Glenwood Springs as the Storm King 14.
Even reporters from the small newspapers around the Prineville area would take a moment during that memorial service to put down their pens and notebooks and just reflect on the loss.
Maybe that’s it.
Storm King Mountain is a sacred place for the families who lost loved ones that dreadful summer day in 1994. It plays out every July 6, especially on significant anniversaries, as many of those family members make the pilgrimage to Glenwood Springs to pay their respects.
Today, more than 200 family members, friends and fellow firefighters will make the trek up that steep, dusty trail to the place where 14 souls live on 20 years later. As is appropriate, locals are asked to give them privacy.
Storm King is their mountain now, but it stands as a constant reminder for those of us here in Glenwood Springs who gaze upon it every day of the year.
We will never forget the sacrifice made that day on that mountain to protect our town from a wildfire.
I know I can’t easily forget something like that. And, to my own dying day, I won’t.