DENVER — Brett Rios is no stranger to capturing intense moments. He's photographed several wildfires, including last year's East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.
But on Tuesday evening, what Rios thought would be photos of an air tanker in action unfortunately turned into photos of a pilot's final flight.
"I woke up to an alert that there was a wildland fire that erupted over off of Fish Creek Road," said the freelance professional photographer. "Me and my associate rallied over, and he was busy doing some other stuff, and I just started documenting the fire as I typically do."
The day quickly turned to night. After editing and submitting some photos, Rios went back out to get a better view of the Kruger Rock Fire.
"I knew an air tanker was en-route," he recalled. "I heard it over the radio. I started setting up my composition. And right after I got my composition, the air tanker came right over the ridge, and I watched him do several sweeps over the fire, buzzing, getting real close like they do."
Rios snapped photos of the plane soaring over the area. He remembers thinking it was strange for an air tanker to be flying due to high winds in the area.
"We had really high winds last night. We had, easily 60 plus mile per hour wind gusts — over that, easily," he said.
After a few photos, the photographer noticed the plane change directions.
"He starts going way north away from the fire, and I'm just like 'Okay, maybe he's out of water,'" said Rios. "He's going back down to Fort Morgan, Loveland, where he took off, and he's going to refill. Maybe he's deemed that it's too windy and he's calling it. And so I have my 85 millimeter lens on, and I pan over to where he's disappearing over the ridge, and my focal length isn't long enough for that distance. It just didn't... just didn't make sense to take the image. So I pan back to the fire."
He continued, "I'm just sitting there holding my camera, getting ready to take a photo and then all of a sudden like this 80 to 90 mile per hour gust of wind just comes barreling through, almost knocks me and my camera over. And then all of a sudden I just see this intense bright flash. It lights up the entire sky behind the fire and behind Kruger Rock."
Rios felt a shift in the air.
"I just immediately was like, 'This doesn't feel right.' And so I went back to just trying to take photos, and then all of a sudden over the radio I hear, 'Tanker down,'" he said.
Rios continued, "And then another voice comes on and says, "Tanker crashed." And (I) pretty much realized my worst thoughts had come true and that I had probably more than likely captured the last images of this person working and doing his job."
The photographer sprang into action.
"It really hit me, so I called non-emergency Estes Park dispatch and gave them my report," said Rios. "(The dispatcher) said that they didn't need my help, but they already had it handled. You know, I figured 'Okay, they got a transponder.' I'm sure they know, you know, they got plenty of people in on this. (I) didn't think anything of it. Well, then hours later, I keep hearing over the radio that they can't find the plane, that they can't find it and that if anyone has seen it, please, you know, keep asking people if someone had seen it. I was just like, 'Well, they know I gave a report. They know I seen it.'"
Rios decided to call the dispatch again.
"I call again. Dispatch just disregarded again," he said. "And I was like, 'Well, please.' They're like asking over the radio if anyone sees anything, and I know exactly where the plane is. She just says, you know, we'll pass your information along. And then I get off the phone, I look at my friend. I'm just like, 'I got to call the sheriff.'"
Rios called the sheriff's non-emergency number and left a voicemail. After a few minutes, he received a call back and gave his report.
"Within ten minutes, sheriff's at the house," the photographer remembered. "I give him my report. I take him out, I show him exactly where the plane disappeared behind the ridge and that, how like two, three seconds after (it) disappeared, that's when the bright flash happened. I took him inside the house, and I busted out my map and I actually circled exactly where for them to look. He took pictures of it, he took a picture with his phone, and I drew on the phone where to look."
"Within minutes, we saw drones and planes circling right above where I told them to look," said Rios. "And then we heard over the radio that they needed ground guys in there to get their hands on, so we knew they found something."
"I was holding on to hope when they called for medic," he said. "I got really excited that maybe there was a miracle, you know, but then once they said, once I heard the tone and once I heard the firefighter said, 'Then we'll make a determination once the medic gets here,' I knew that meant that the pilot lost his life."
CO Fire Aviation, the company the pilot worked for, identified him as Marc Thor Olson, a 32-year veteran of the Air Force and Army.
Olson had been an FAA-certified pilot since 1979, who had logged more than 8,000 flight hours and 1,000 hours of flying with night vision goggles, both as a civilian and in combat, according to the company.
Rios is still processing what happened Tuesday night.
"As a photographer, that's something I've never, never actually had come to terms with," he said. "I've never documented something like that."
"Once I realized that I had those last images, it really kind of affected me pretty hard," Rios continued. "I went into just this state of processing so many different emotions, from anger, complete sadness, frustration, confusion. And then I woke up this morning, and I'm still left with this, just this deep, profound sense of sadness. But then there's also this kind of little bit....—I'm just grateful that I was able to be, just maybe, some little bit of help, maybe helping find the plane if just a little bit of being some service — that kind of gives me a little bit of comfort. But I'm still calm, still honestly processing here."
He still questions the events and if things could have been different.
"I wish we could have got to him sooner," Rios said. "I just I really wish, you know, maybe I should have just hiked up on my own right afterwards like I wanted to. I don't know, maybe that time could have helped. I don't know. That's my only question I have on, is if we could have got to him sooner."
He continued, "I just want to say to his family: I'm so sorry for your loss."