BUTTE - Friends and relatives of three families who suffered the loss of their sons, daughters and grandchildren in a still-unexplained plane crash came to Butte on Monday to thank the community for its kindness and to grieve together.
The weather was not unlike the blustery day a year ago - on March 22, 2009 - when a small commuter plane carrying seven adults and seven children crashed just short of the Bert Mooney Airport runway into Holy Cross Cemetery, killing all on board.
A spring squall had just moved through Butte when the pilot of a Pilatus PC 12/45 with 13 passengers on board from various towns in California sought permission to land in Butte rather than in Bozeman.
The families were headed for a ski vacation at Big Sky. Pilot Bud Summerfield had requested air traffic control in Salt Lake City to change his landing to the Mining City, but did not give a reason.
No cause of the crash has been released by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"I just want to say, if a tragedy like this was to happen, Butte was a good place, where the people here really took care of us," said Bud Feldkamp, father and grandfather of many of those onboard the plane. "The compassion that the community has shows how people here can really rise to a crisis. Just like the town pulled together to build the Our Lady of the Rockies statue, they really kept us in their hearts."
Pam Feldkamp, Bud's wife, and mother and grandmother of those who died, speaking during a luncheon Monday for the first-responders to the crash, said: "We now feel that Butte is our extended family.''
About 40 of the Pullen, Jacobson and Ching families (those whose relatives died in the crash) attended the luncheon and memorial service at the cemetery. A squall moved through the valley with the sky changing from gray to blue as family members placed roses, teddy bears and Beanie Babies around the memorial.
"I was impressed by the letters, cards and phone calls that we received from Butte people," said Pam Feldkamp.
And many noted that cards, teddy bears and flowers have been left at the memorial site over the year by folks in Butte.
"Most people who hear about a tragedy don't remember the families," said Joanne Poblano, a close friend. "It really helps with the healing."
Rick and Cheryl Mautz, whose daughter Kristen Ching, 31, of Durham, Calif., was killed in the crash, were grateful to the Red Cross for bringing in "comfort dogs" from Missoula to be with the family as they arrived just after the accident.
"Kristen was expecting a child and when we recovered her laptop, we found she had put prints of her most recent ultrasound pictures in there. It was a boy," said Rick Mautz.
They plan to move to Denver this year to be near their son and his children.
"It will help with the healing," he said.
The families all know each other from colleges and medical schools they and their children had attended. They are mostly Seventh-day Adventists and many attend church together. They have met periodically over the course of the last year to remember their children, and they are spending time together this week at the Yellowstone Club ski resort.
Maggie Cotton, who lost two of her sisters, Amy Jacobson and Vanessa Pullen, in the crash, said of them: "We went through so many stages of our life together: from boyfriends to sharing a wedding dress. I now see in Montana and its people what Amy wanted us to see when she wanted us to come here to ski.
"Our grief is now about the joy of our families being together."
Montana Standard editor Gerry O'Brien can be reached at email@example.com.