Night of Havoc
Remembering the Secret Service plane that crashed on Sheep Mountain.
// By Jim Stanford
After a day on the Snake River assisting the Secret Service with a presidential rafting trip, Keith Benefiel plopped down on the couch at his home in Wilson and popped in one of his favorite movies, Apocalypse Now. No sooner had Robert Duvall’s character, Lt. Col. Kilgore, uttered his famous line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” than a real-life fireball exploded over the Gros Ventre Mountains east of Jackson Hole, and Benefiel, a Teton County Search and Rescue volunteer, sprang back to action.
An Air Force C-130 Hercules, transporting equipment from the presidential visit, had crashed into 11,244-foot-tall Sheep Mountain, on the belly of the natural rock formation called Sleeping Indian. Benefiel was one of 28 rescuers who hiked for more than three hours up the steep mountainside by headlamp to reach the crash site, where he was greeted by the smell of burning jet fuel and smoldering wreckage. “‘Surreal’ would be about the only word that would wrap it up,” he says.
President Bill Clinton and his family had departed safely late that afternoon, but eight crew members and one Secret Service agent died in the crash. All that remained of the plane, whose call sign was Havoc 58, was a section of the tail and wheels from the landing gear. The Air Force attributed the cause of the crash to human error, as the crew misinterpreted radar and failed to climb quickly enough. It was a starry night, with no moonlight to illuminate the ridgeline.
The tragedy of Aug. 17, 1996 marred what had been a bucolic nine-day visit to the valley by the Clintons; it was the second consecutive summer the First Family had vacationed in Jackson Hole. Only five days earlier, President Clinton had proclaimed, “Yellowstone is more precious than gold,” in announcing a deal to nix a proposed gold mine near the park’s boundary. The plane was bound for New York, where the president would celebrate his 50th birthday.
Grieving family and friends have visited the mountain over the years, and last summer, on the 25th anniversary, 16 people gathered at the memorial plaque erected nearby in Curtis Canyon. From the plaque you can see the crash site. “Cathartic” is how several former members of the tight-knit squadron from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, described the experience. “I didn’t realize I had these emotions in me the past 25 years until I came out here, and now I know what I was holding on to,” said Tim Taylor, a retired lieutenant colonel who was close friends with Capt. Kevin Earnest, Havoc 58’s pilot.
The Air Force removed the largest pieces of wreckage, but for years, the site was sprinkled with tiny bits of glass, wire, and plastic. Hikers collected these fragments and piled them into mounds, one of which was marked by a wooden cross, and the wind-blown hillside took on the feeling of a shrine. In 2015, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Wyoming Wilderness Association spearheaded a cleanup that removed more than 100 pounds of debris from the site, which is located in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
“The reality is there’s so much stuff, little bits of stuff, there’s no way we can totally clean that up,” says forest manager Linda Merigliano. The cleanup primarily targeted piles made by visitors, some of which included bottle caps and other garbage. “To me, it’s more sacred when stuff is on the ground and you see it as itself, in place,” Merigliano says.
Today the scene bears hardly any trace of the horror of that night. Churned by pocket gophers, the smallest bits of debris have become part of the soil. In the evening, the rose of alpenglow coats the slope where it tilts slightly toward the valley and the majestic Teton peaks. The Sleeping Indian remains in peaceful repose.
Victims of Sheep Mountain Crash
Those killed were Capt. Kevin N. Earnest; Capt. Kimberly Jo Wielhouwer; 2nd Lt. Benjamin T. Hall; Staff Sgt. Michael J. Smith Jr.; Senior Airmen Michael R. York, Ricky L. Merritt, and Billy R. Ogston; and Airman Thomas A. Stevens—all based at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas—and Secret Service agent Aldo E. Frascoia of Clinton, Maryland. JH