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FORT MORGAN — A procession of ever-increasing law enforcement and first responder vehicles guided by two low-flying airplanes led the American flag-draped body of fallen firefighter pilot Marc Thor Olson on the 85-mile trip from Fort Collins to Fort Morgan on Monday.
Along the way, strings of people stood by the roadside with flags waving, hats over hearts and in salute to the pilot who died during the Kruger Rock Fire in what is believed to be the first nighttime aerial firefighting mission in Colorado history.
For many, it was the only way to honor Olson.
"He was like the godfather of the fire pilots out here,'' said Kelly Price, referring to CO Fire Aviation, the Fort Morgan-based company for whom Olson worked.
Price, of Stoneham, and her mother, Judy Price, of Fort Morgan, stood among a large group of people across the end of the procession at the Heer funeral home in Fort Morgan. From there, Olson's body will be moved to Texas, where his family will conduct a funeral.
Price and her husband, who is a firefighter, came to know Olson as photographers of the aerial firefighters at CO Fire Aviation, which is among a handful of companies employing trained pilots to fight fire at night.
"Flying was not only his passion but his art, and he was beautiful doing it,'' Kelly Price said. "It's just grief of a fallen hero and it's very sad to lose someone who had so much courage and was so passionate about what he did.
"And if you could see the processional and see how many people turned out, it's a vast community that's grieving.''
The procession left the Larimer County Coroner's Office in Fort Collins at 10 a.m., heading southeast to Fort Morgan, arriving at the funeral home about two hours later.
Judy Price said despite the loss, it was heartening to see so many people pay their final respects, pointing to the street lined with people and a large American flag suspended above the main road into the eastern Colorado town.
"It shows we can all come together when something like this happens,'' she said. "To see all the people here makes you feel good that we are all coming together.''
During the entire trip, two CO Fire Aviation specially-equipped single-engine Air Tractor AT-802 planes, like the one Olson was piloting when he crashed on Nov. 16, escorted the procession. The long line of emergency vehicles lengthened as the procession made its way through the agriculture fields that dominate the landscape east of Greeley to Fort Morgan.
At Kersey, Dana Moeller, of Berthoud, waved an American flag while watching the procession of low-flying airplanes and vehicles with lights flashing along U.S. Highway 34.
"I think heroes aren't appreciated anymore and the fact that (he was) one person trying something that had never been done makes him a role model for the community,'' she said.
The 59-year-old Olson had an extensive flying resume in the Air Force and Army, and in his civilian life.
CO Fire Aviation posted on its Facebook page that Olson had flown for 42 years and was a highly decorated veteran of the Army and Air Force with 32 years of service, amassing more than 8,000 flight hours with 1,000 hours of night vision goggle flying, including in combat and in civilian life.
Olson's plane crashed at Hermit Park about 6:37 p.m. Nov. 16 near the fire a couple miles southeast of Estes Park. He was wearing night vision goggles used by pilots in the emerging technology of aerial firefighting at night.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash. Olson reported to his ground crew he was experiencing turbulence but that he was going to make one more pass before he crashed.
The Fort Worth Star Telegram reported Olson grew up near the airport in his home town of Mineral Wells, which is west of Fort Worth, and earned his pilot's license at age 17.
The 147-acre Kruger Rock Fire was declared 100% contained on Saturday.
Reporter Miles Blumhardt looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MilesBlumhardt. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Marc Thor Olson remembered: 'He was like the godfather of the fire pilots'