Here’s how the drama unfolded. Lynn Bjorklund, 40, and her brother, Eric, 45, were beginning the second day of a backpacking trip in the 11,500-foot mountains of the rugged Pecos Wilderness area northeast of Santa Fe. Both were still sleeping in their tents when they heard a plane pass close overhead. Too close.
“It didn’t sound very good,” says Lynn, a reclamation specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, “and a moment later, we heard it hit the ground twice, followed by a huge explosion. I peeked out of my tent and saw the plane totally on fire just a couple hundred yards away. I couldn’t imagine that anyone could have survived the crash.”
After pulling on boots and grabbing a first-aid kit, she and Eric ran down to the crash site. There they found, much to their amazement, that both the pilot and the passenger were still alive. Before the plane exploded, the pilot had pulled out the passenger, who was now on his hands and knees, burying his face in the wet grass to relieve the burn pains. The pilot himself was attempting to beat out the flames on one ankle, but his fuel-soaked shoe and sock kept reigniting.
Lynn and Eric moved the crash victims away from the burning plane, whose flames were still more than 20 feet high. They then began questioning them.
“Did you have time to radio for help?” Lynn asked Scott Sterritt, the pilot No. The plane had gone down too fast
“Do you think your planes emergency locator transmitter is working?”
No. The fire and explosion would have destroyed it
That left only one solution: Someone would have to go for help. As fast as possible. “I told them I was a long-distance runner,” says Lynn, while Eric almost broke out laughing at the understatement. He also knew that, through the years, she had continued running about an hour a day in the hills around her Ely, Nev., home. “I said I could probably run out of the wilderness in 2 or 3 hours and get help,” Lynn remembers.
“So I changed into my running shoes and started out Luckily, I used to work for the U.S. Forest Service, and as part of my job, I had mapped and written trail descriptions for this particular area. That gave me a pretty good feel for the terrain. It has a lot of rocky mountain ridges, and if s easy to get lost but I managed to stay on the trail.”
Accompanied by her dog, Toulouse, Bjorklund ran toward civilization, constantly checking her topographic Naps and compass. Along the way she met several hikers, t none had a cell phone. She detoured to an old Forest Service cabin, now used mostly for storage, hoping to find a two-way radio there. No such luck.
She pressed on until, roughly 48 to 20 miles from the crash site, she reached the Jack Creek Campground, where her car was parked. From there, she drove to a nearby cabin, which had a telephone, and called the New Mexico State Police to explain where she was and what had happened.
While a helicopter from the New Mexico Emergency Response Team scrambled to pick up Bjorklund, she spread out her maps and calculated the exact latitude and longitude of the crash site. Less than an hour later, the helicopter picked her up and, with her directions, flew str-aight to the site.
Eric Bjorklund had spent the intervening hours assisting the crash victims–“He had a harder job than I did,” Lynn says modestly–tending to their bums, keeping them hydrated, keeping them warm. He had just finished fixing them a cup of tea when the trio heard the much-hoped-for sound of helicopter blades.
“They tossed the tea over their shoulders and started yelling, `All right! Help is here!'” says Eric.
Five hours after their plane crashed, Sterritt and his passenger, Robert Coleman, were airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where they received skin grafts and other bum treatments for two weeks, before being released. Meanwhile, Eric and Lynn Bjorklund continued their backpacking trip for another three days, then went to visit Sterritt and Coleman in the hospital.
“It doesn’t appear that they’re going to suffer any permanent injuries,” Lynn said several days later, “so I have a good feeling that I was able to help somebody out I don’t think I did anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done. A faster runner might have gotten them out faster. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”