Witness to accident: ‘All I saw was some debris floating down’

Craig Polley had his binoculars trained on the shoreline of Juniata Reservoir when two airplanes flew into his field of view.

Polley, a city of Grand Junction employee who’s responsible for checking and maintaining the city’s reservoirs, was out on his daily rounds on the mesas south of Whitewater on Wednesday morning. The
Cessnas were coasting about 10,000 feet, level with the top of Grand Mesa.

The quiet, cool, sunny day was shattered moments later when the planes collided.

“All I saw was some debris floating down, so I knew they had touched,” Polley said.

He said one plane, carrying two Mesa County Sheriff’s Department employees and two state prisoners, turned around and headed back to Grand Junction Regional Airport, where it performed a hard landing.

The other plane, carrying father and son John and Tom Haefeli of Del Norte, turned 90 degrees and descended along the Kannah Creek drainage.

Polley called 911 and drove down Lands End Road. A pilot himself, he said the Haefelis’ plane had the flaps along the trailing edges of its wings lowered for an emergency landing. He said it was apparent the pilot was attempting to direct the plane in a way that would allow him to decrease his air speed and find a place to land. Polley also noted it wasn’t windy.

Still, he said, “I didn’t really know what I was going to see” when he came upon the downed plane.

Polley found the wreckage on Reeder Mesa. The Haefelis had gotten out and were walking around.

“He was thanking God,” Polley said of the passenger, John Haefeli.

John Haefeli told Polley he and Tom, who was piloting the plane, were on their way from the San Luis Valley to Idaho to pick up a truck and had planned to refuel in Vernal, Utah.

They were flying near Grand Mesa when they happened to look up and see another plane directly above them, Polley said.

Tom Haefeli dropped the nose of the plane to try to avoid a collision, but the tail section of their plane hit the belly of the Sheriff’s Department’s plane, shearing off the tail.

As a result, “he didn’t have a lot of control,” Polley said.

He said John Haefeli told him they “strapped themselves in as tight as they could” before the plane landed in a rocky area and flipped upside-down.


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