It's been 15 years — about half of their lifetimes — since Leslianne and Robert Mackey last visited the mountain where their father, Don, died on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs with 13 other firefighters.
On Saturday, the 25th anniversary of those deaths, the two siblings returned to remember him. They were two of many family members of the fallen, people young and old, who made the trek to Colorado and visited the mountain to honor loved ones.
Leslianne, who turns 31 today, was just 6 when her father died, and Robert was just 4. But they were old enough to have memories of him, such as fishing outings he'd take Robert on.
Said Leslianne, "He was a big outdoors guy. He spoiled us for sure, he was a fun dad."
The two spoke as they stopped at the cross marking the spot high on the mountain where their dad, 34, died along with 11 others. The location is on a steep slope beneath a ridge where others escaped the blowup that occurred on the mountain July 6, 1994. The 12 who died on that slope included nine Hot Shot crew members from Prineville, Oregon, and three smokejumpers, one of them Mackey.
Two others — Richard Tyler and Robert Browning, Jr., who worked out of Grand Junction in a helitack operation — died in a steep gully elsewhere on the mountain as they apparently sought escape by another route.
Leslianne and Robert paused Saturday as an airplane made two runs to drop a total of 14 purple streamers in honor of the Storm King 14. The two watched to see where the streamers landed in case they might be able to retrieve one as a keepsake. Such streamers are used in firefighting to judge wind before deploying smokejumpers.
The crosses marking where the firefighters died were installed under the coordination of Don's father, Bob, with the help of Don's mother, Nadine, and others. Don's parents have died, but Leslianne on Saturday carried with her a member of the latest Mackey generation, Don's year-and-a-half-old grandson, Abram Don Carr.
"It is emotional. It's been 25 years. It's just kind of sad to think of how much he's missed out on everything. Twenty-five years is a long time and a lot happens in life," she said as young Abram napped on her back.
Eighty-three-year-old Carol Roth thinks of what didn't happen as a result of her son Roger's death on Storm King.
"Roger was engaged to be married. They had children's names picked out and then he got killed," she said.
She and her husband Wally, 86, hiked partway up the mountain Saturday, to a point that affords a good view of where the firefighters died higher up the slope. Any hopes they might have had of going farther were derailed after Wally suffered a mild heart attack several weeks ago.
But her son, Jim, and daughter-in-law Staci went up to the ridgetop, accompanied by Dan Buckley, who knew Roger from firefighting and to this day takes firefighters up Storm King to discuss what safety lessons the tragedy has to offer.
"We use it as a learning tool, these sacred grounds," Buckley said.
Down at the bottom of the mountain, Sandy Dunbar, whose son Doug died on Storm King, stayed put.
"I've had two hip replacements so I don't intend to push my luck" by climbing any of the mountain, she said.
As is the case for so many others who think about the Storm King victims, mathematical calculations enter the picture for Dunbar.
"Doug would be 47. I was 47 when this happened 25 years ago. It didn't really ring a bell until I said it aloud. I almost couldn't believe it," she said.
For Dunbar, it was important to come back and visit the other Storm King families. These are people from around the country brought together by tragedy, but now also united by 25 years of friendship and new memories and watching their families grow.
A local organizing committee held a private gathering Friday for family members and others with a close involvement with the fire.
"This will probably be our last time" visiting the mountain, Carol Roth said, citing the difficulties of traveling from Michigan as she and Wally age.
The Roths and Dunbars have shared a close bond over the years arising from the circumstances of their sons' deaths.
The two died side by side, Roger taking Doug into his fire shelter with him, Carol said. The Roths and Dunbar first met by happenstance when both visited Glenwood Springs the September after the tragedy.
As Sandy waited down below Saturday, her daughter Kody Gabriel, son-in-law and their two children, 13 and 7, hiked to where Doug died, accompanied by Doug's father, Randy.
Kody was in her mid-teens when Doug, 22, died. She remembers being the annoying younger sister to him growing up, and how she looked up to him as he went to college, took on the responsibilities of a job and became a skilled skier.
"He just always seemed like he was beyond his years," she said.
Also on the mountain Saturday was Tom Shepard, who was the superintendent of the Prineville Hot Shot crew at the time of the Storm King disaster.
"I'm glad to be able to show up and pay my respects," said Shepard, who lives in northern Idaho and last visited Storm King on the 20th anniversary of the deaths.
The decision-making that preceded the deaths of the firefighters on Storm King received intense scrutiny by investigators and journalists after the fire. Returning to the mountain Saturday, Shepard recalled the lack of clarity he was feeling about the situation ahead of the blowup.
"We were rushed into this whole thing. My mistake was I didn't stop the presses and go, wait a minute, let's take a look at what's going on. I'll take some of the blame for what happened," he said.
Alex Robertson served under Shepard on Storm King and returned to the mountain for the anniversary. He remembers being on the mountain 45 minutes before being chased off of it by the blowup. It was "not even enough time to understand what was going on up there," he said.
He said the kind of internal second-guessing Shepard has gone through over the years is only natural for people with a level of responsibility. Robertson, who works for the Forest Service, now holds a high level of such responsibility in a management-level role as a fire and aviation staff officer for a fire management service in central Oregon, with oversight that includes the Prineville crew. Both Shepard and Robertson worked to keep that crew going after the setback of Storm King.
Robertson said the focus these days isn't on assigning blame for firefighter fatalities but trying to learn from them to improve safety.
He appreciated Shepard's presence at the anniversary.
"We're really happy that he's here. Knowing he was going to come here and be with us is a really great thing."
He hopes Shepard's visit helps Shepard in his own process of recovering and healing from Storm King as well.
"We all take our own path (to recovery). Having him here is a very positive thing," Robertson said.
As families and fire survivors returned to the mountain Saturday, so did others without the same connections to the disaster 25 years ago, but still with a strong interest in what happened there and a feeling of compassion for those who lost loved ones. Lisa King of Nashville remembers reading about the fire in a 1994 Time story, and first hiking the trail up Storm King in 2001. She’s come frequently since, enjoying a place of beauty mixed with tragedy, thinking of people who died doing something they loved, and of what the loss must have been like for their parents.
“To be part of a club of ‘I’ve lost my loved one’ is something that I don’t think anybody would want to be a member of that club,” she said.