LOOKING BACK over his nearly 30 years as a highly decorated first responder in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, Michael Ferrara has trouble pinpointing the exact moment when his life began to unravel. His ordeal arrived not all at once but in a long spool of assaults on his soul and psyche. A plausible starting point, though, might be March 29, 2001, and a nightmare that occurred at the airport in Aspen.
One fine warm day this past August, Ferrara and I decided to walk over to the site. His six-year-old mountain-rescue dog, a German shepherd named Lhotse, led the way. Ferrara wore sweats and trail-running shoes. His skin was ruddy from the sun, his graying strawberry-blond hair cropped short. We stopped outside the Aspen airport's fence, which is designed, among other things, to keep herds of elk off the tarmac. Ferrara squinted through the sun as a Learjet taxied and then shot into the sky.
"I'm OK with this," he assured me. "I've learned to recount without reliving—it's part of the therapy."
The weather was snowy and cold on that evening nearly ten years ago. One minute past seven o'clock, a Gulfstream III came in on an instrument approach. Fifteen friends from Los Angeles, most of them in their late twenties, had chartered the jet for a few days of spring skiing to celebrate a buddy's birthday. Something went wrong on the final descent. The pilot apparently couldn't see the runway. A wing tip caught the ground, the plane flipped, and the tail segment broke off. Then the plane exploded into flames.
Ferrara, who at the time was both a Pitkin County sheriff's deputy and an assistant coroner, was among the first to arrive. Over the years, he had worked on a half-dozen small-engine-plane crashes in the mountains around Aspen. In other jobs as a paramedic, ski patroller, high-angle rescuer, and avalanche specialist, he'd often dealt with blood and trauma and heartache. Among scores of incidents, he was first on the scene when the late senator Robert Kennedy's son Michael Kennedy, 39, fatally struck a tree while skiing in Aspen in 1997. Ferrara was steeped in the stoic culture of the first responder, and instinctively knew how to take charge in chaotic situations. But he wasn't prepared for this.
In the swirl of the dome lights, through the flickering of a dozen fires, Ferrara drank in the surreal horror of the crash. The first charred and bloodied body he came upon was still buckled to his seat, his cell phone ringing in his pocket. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Ferrara saw something jammed into the elk fence: a hunk of flesh, dripping with serous fluid. Ferrara spent that terrible evening with fellow officers, assembling body parts into plastic bags. It was one of the worst tragedies in Aspen's recent history. All 18 people, including the crew, were killed. Ferrara got home at four in the morning, smelling like jet fuel. He stripped out of his gore-smeared clothes and left them in the front yard.
As he told me all this, he blinked and blinked, as though waiting for tears that wouldn't come. "The thing is," he said, "I drive by here every day. It's a reminder. A trigger. People jet here all year long to have fun in this playground. Nobody comes to Aspen thinking something like that is going to happen. They look at these beautiful mountains and see paradise. I look at these same mountains—and sometimes I see another side."
FERRARA, WHO HAS long been known around town as Mongo, is a genuine Aspen character. His nickname comes from the burly villain in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles—played by football star Alex Karras—who knocks out a horse with a single punch and deadpans the famous line "Mongo only pawn in game of life." Mongo landed in Aspen in 1979, after passing on law school in Buffalo, New York, near his rural hometown of Williamsville. He was 29, and in those early days he became known as a hard-charging, hard-partying, slightly outrageous but extremely competent tough guy who liked to live on the edge.