About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

A Plane Crash in Sedona

Al and I stood along the fire line, staring at the smoldering wreckage.

"Is that part of a wing?" I asked.

"No, that's a stabilizer," he said. "That's part of a wing over there. I think this was a Piper, but I can't tell for sure."

It was a little after 8am. How different the crash site looked now that the sun was up. During the night, the wreckage had been illuminated by the light of the full moon and the orange glow of flames, making it seem almost surreal. But now, in the stark light of day, it was all too vivid and all too real.

At about 5:30pm on Thursday, November 13th, my pager had gone off. It was a 300 code for a rescue, so I was surprised to hear our Captain's message that this was an airplane disaster. At the time, he didn't know if it was a private or commercial plane, how many people were involved, or what the status of the victims were. He did know the location, near Schnebly Hill Rd. in Sedona.

At least a dozen volunteers had responded to the SAR building by the time the call-out was cancelled, but that didn't mean the mission was over. As more information came in, Lieutenant Christian told us that only four of us would be needed for the night, two to station themselves at the intersection of Schnebly Hill Rd. and the rough two-track that led relatively close to the crash site, and two to spend the night watching over the wreckage. Al and I were to be the two who'd spend the night with what was left of the plane. And the two men who hadn't survived.

And that's what was foremost in my mind as I lay on the ground nearby, inside my bivvy bag with my head on my backpack. I had forgotten my ground pad and there wasn't a clear a spot anywhere to be found that was free of rocks, but my own discomfort was nothing. All I could think about were the people affected by this crash--the two men who'd died, the pilot who'd somehow crawled from the wreckage with second and third degree burns over half his body, and the rest of their family members. It's one thing to hear about such tragedies in the news; it's quite another to be so ... well, up close and personal.

As it turned out, the three victims were related--two brothers, Michael and Tommy Johnson, and their cousin, Rockney Mark Herring. (That's Rockney in the yellow shirt, then Tommy and Michael.) I first saw this photo when Michael's son held up his cellphone to show Al and me the image the morning following the crash, when we returned to the intersection at Schnebly Hill Rd. after being relieved by two other SAR members. Micah Johnson and other family members were there, waiting to be taken to the scene. Seeing the pictures of the men whose remains we'd watched over during the night really had an impact on me.

Micah said that his dad, Michael from Phoenix, and his uncle Tommy of Texas hadn't seen one another in nearly ten years. They'd been enjoying a sightseeing flight with their cousin Rockney, the pilot, when, after refueling at the Sedona airport, their Piper PA 32-260, fixed-wing, single-engine aircraft lost power and went down in that rugged, heavily treed area about eight miles east of Sedona.

A vacationing New York firefighter camping nearby had been the first on the scene. He found the injured pilot lying next to a tree and rendered first aid until a DPS rescue helicopter was able to land and transport the patient. Arriving in the darkness a few hours after the crash, the first thing I'd seen in the firelight was what turned out to be the pilot's mangled headset on the ground next to a tree, marked with evidence tape.

When we hiked up to the crash site, a Lieutenant, a deputy and numerous members of the Forest Service were there. The Forest Service had cut a fire line around the wreckage and were finishing up their work for the time being. Al and I would keep tabs on the fire during the night to be sure the flames didn't kick up again or cross the fire line.

As the others prepared to leave, the deputy asked if Al and I would be comfortable up there on our own, to which we replied we'd be fine. The deputy would remain at the intersection on Schnebly Hill Rd. where he had provisions in his patrol car, and we could call him by cellphone or radio if we needed him at the site. We were also given numbers to call if there were an issue with the fire.

It was a long night, with the moon so bright I could read small print without my headlamp. Unfortunately, the only thing I did have to read was the info sheet that came with my brand new bivvy bag. Which, by the way, I found out isn't quite adequate for the middle of November, particularly between 2 and 4am. With the rocks, the cold, the radio traffic I monitored throughout the night, and frequent fire checks, particularly when the breeze picked up, there wasn't much sleep happening.

"You awake?" I heard Al ask sometime around 1:30am.

"Yeeeaaahhh," I groaned.

"I'm going to take a walk around the crash site to make sure everything's okay."

From my location upwind of the fire, I watched Al disappear behind illuminated smoke. Looking at my moonlit surroundings, I was struck by how quiet it was, except for the occasional crack or pop from the embers, or some piece of plane or smoldering tree limb shifting.

Al returned to his own spot amongst the rocks, and we both lay there for another six hours or so, my bivvy and his space blanket crinkling intermittently as we both tried to find comfortable positions for the next few minutes. I was relieved when the sun came up and things would soon be happening. At some point, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Medical Examiner (ME) would arrive, then Michael and Tommy's remains would be removed from beneath the wreckage.

But before that happened, media helicopters were on the scene, flying in slow circles above our heads. I thought about how different it was here on the ground, standing only feet from what I'd normally just see on the news.

From the Arizona Daily Sun: "Family Mourns Brothers Killed in Plane Crash"

From ABC15.com: "2 killed in fiery plane crash near Sedona identified"

ABC15.com Audio file: "Listen to Herring's 911 Call After Escaping the Fiery Crash"