20 years ago: El Paso County had its 24 hours of hell

February 26, 2011
photo - Rescue workers pick through the wreckage of United Flight 585 on the morning the 737 aircraft crashed on a landing approach to the Colorado Springs airport killing everyone on board on March 3rd 1991. Photo by GAZETTE FILE
Rescue workers pick through the wreckage of United Flight 585 on the morning the 737 aircraft crashed on a landing approach to the Colorado Springs airport killing everyone on board on March 3rd 1991. Photo by GAZETTE FILE 

On a winter morning 20 years ago today, retired Air Force captain Lewis Seaburn awoke to a “boom” that rattled his Widefield home as if a fighter pilot had cracked the sound barrier just overhead.

“It about knocked me out of bed,” he recalled. “I remember thinking: That guy’s in trouble.”

What the military veteran mistook for a fighter jet was in reality the awful sound of a Boeing 737 airliner slamming into the ground a few hundred feet from his doorstep.

The impact in Widefield Community Park shook homes, gouged a 10-foot-deep crater in the earth and reduced the aircraft to shrapnel. Charred remains were all that was left of the 25 people aboard.

The horrendous crash wasn’t the only tragedy on March 3, 1991.

Shortly before midnight that same Sunday, electricity sparked in the attic of a nursing home in Colorado Springs’ Hillside neighborhood. Forty-five minutes later, an inferno erupted that killed nine elderly women and hospitalized a 10th who later died of her injuries.

Twenty years later, the twin disasters have receded into the field of local history.

But for people who witnessed El Paso County’s 24 hours of hell, that day hasn’t faded.

“It’s almost an everyday feeling,” said Dick Wilhelm, whose Wilhelm Monument Co. supplied a memorial for the plane crash — produced in Wilhelm’s shop across the street from where the nursing home burned.

United Flight 585 was headed for a routine landing at the Colorado Springs Municipal Airport when the plane flipped and nose-dived into the ground at 250 mph.

It took eight years for the Federal Aviation Administration to trace the crash’s probable cause to a soda-can size hydraulic valve that moves the rudder on one of the most widely used commercial jets in the country.

In 2000, the Boeing Co. agreed to redesign the 737 rudder.

Changes were also ordered after the fire at the Crystal Springs Estate retirement home on South Hancock Avenue just north of East Fountain Boulevard.

The electrical spark that smoldered in the attic birthed a fiery ball that burst through the ceiling of the home’s smoking room and rapidly spread.

If the home had a sprinkler system and enough fire doors, the fire might have been contained, experts concluded.

The Colorado Springs Fire Department responded with 11 firefighters, standard for the time but too few for the inferno they encountered.

As a result, the Fire Department now sends two engines and a ladder truck to automatic fire alarms from care facilities, even though many are false alarms. In 1993, the Colorado Springs City Council ordered that boarding, nursing and retirement homes be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.

While the disasters spawned safety improvements, there were no easy repairs for the day’s emotional wreckage.

When Karen Matlack, 54, thinks back on that day, she sees the hot embers that floated through the night air across Hancock Avenue and toward her home at 1025 E. Las Animas St.
She and her husband, Ernest, have lived in the home for three decades — long enough to recognize how the deadly blaze altered their neighborhood’s character.

“The elderly used to roam around the neighborhood and we’d talk to them,” Matlack said. “It was nice seeing them.”

The building that once housed the Crystal Springs nursing home was partly salvaged for an apartment building. The southern half of the lot contains a house built by Habitat for Humanity.

Some neighbors have a hard time seeing past the tragedy.

“I personally think they should have torn it (all) down because of all the people passing away,” said Anita Gallegos, 64, a lifelong Colorado Springs resident. “It’s a sad reminder to the family.”

Michael Gower and Ronald Culp were among the firefighters who were called to serve on the night of the fire. Sent to save lives, the two instead saw a makeshift morgue set up for the many victims.

Gower, now a battalion chief, had to identify their charred remains: “To this day, I drive by and see what’s left of the nursing home. It always gives me pause to what took place and the impact it had on the community.”

“The entire country knew about Crystal Springs,” said Culp, who is retired. “CNN personnel were here for the plane crash. So it had national coverage.”

Today, a casual visitor to Widefield Community Park could easily spend an afternoon without ever learning of its painful legacy.

A disc golf course spans the park’s 35 acres. Tennis courts, basketball hoops and picnic tables draw noisy visitors.

In a shade-filled corner, a small gazebo marks the spot where United Flight 585 hit. Those who step inside will see the names of the passengers etched into a plaque embedded in a rock.

Ash trees surround the building — one for each of the 25 passengers. A 26th was planted in honor of a body that was being transported aboard the plane for burial in Colorado Springs.

The El Paso County Parks Department inspects the trees for good health and makes sure the memorial is free of graffiti and trash — fitting treatment for what parks employee Tim Morgan calls “hallowed ground.”

Mitzi Cantrell, 77, said she often reflects on that awful day during her daily strolls through the park, just a quick walk from the house where she and her late husband raised a daughter.

“It was like a bomb that went off,” Cantrell recalled.

“Every time I go to the gazebo and sit over there, I read the names.”

Call the writer at 636-0366.

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