ESTES PARK, Colo. (CBS4) – A photographer who was documenting the progression of the Kruger Rock Fire says he watched as Marc Olson tragically crashed his firefighting aircraft into the side of a mountainside, just moments after taking the last known photo of the aircraft in flight.
Brett Rios, who posts his photography on Facebook said he was one of the first people to report the single engine aircraft was down.
“I saw the airtanker come over (the mountains), and I watched it do four or five passes,” Rios told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “I watched the last second of him disappearing over the ridge.”
Rios took a few photos of the Kruger Mountain Fire as the pilot flew above. Olson was conducting the states first ever nighttime air attack on a fire using night vision goggles.
Rios said he was taking a few final photos when suddenly a strong gust of wind made its way over Estes Park.
“The wind almost blew me and my tripod over. A few seconds after that wind came through an insanely bright flash lit up the entire sky behind Kruger Rock,” Rios recalled. “And on the radio I heard air tanker down.”
Rios said he called police to report that he witnessed what he thought was a crash. Yet, at the same time, he was still holding out hope that he was just confused.
“Maybe the tanker is down like ‘Done, we are not using it anymore it is too windy. Maybe it needs the tanker needs to go refill. Maybe it did an emergency landing,’ but then I immediately went to that flash and my stomach sank,” Rios said. “You realize that like just 30 seconds after you took this photo, this person lost their life.”
Rios said he was heartbroken when he learned the retired military veteran died on the mountainside.
“When I went to bed last night I was pretty torn up with a mix of emotions,” Rios said. “My worst fears were confirmed.”
Rios said he wanted to one day print the photo of Olson’s final flight and gift it to his widow, hoping it would serve as a reminder that her husband died in an effort to save others.
“He had option to stay on the ground. He didn’t have to fly, and he still chose to go up. It says a lot about his character. My heart goes out to the family,” Rios said.