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‘Leo’s character pillar of his life’s work’

What is broadly known about Leo Lloyd’s tragically condensed life are his heroic and legendary international level mountaineering search, and rescue skills and saves. What I hope to add – in tribute – is the perspective of his contributions through the lens of a former sheriff responsible for SAR in La Plata County. Leo shall always be remembered in my mind as a man who assuredly performed with the highest of personal character in emergency response.

Aristotle taught us that to live the virtuous, moral life, we must strive for character, which places others before self. It was Leo’s character that was the pillar of his life’s work.

No incident more profoundly demonstrated Leo’s character than a late summer SAR call in 1992 for a reported stroke victim camped just below treeline in the wilderness of Los Pinos Canyon. The call came in late in the afternoon. I asked Durango Central Dispatch to page our on-call Emergency Management Team. Quickly, our leadership team came together in my large office. Due to the late hour of the day and the remote distance of our patient, sending in ground teams was deemed impractical. Therefore, we decided to request Air Care Helicopter Rescue out of Farmington to respond to the stroke victim’s location, knowing that Leo was now the flight nurse/paramedic.

We felt confident the helicopter would locate the remote campsite because Leo was on board. Initially, all seemed well. We had radio communication with Leo and he kept us updated, notifying us they had found the camp and a good landing zone. Our collective brains and hearts were seared in that stunning, surreal moment when shocking disaster struck. One of our members was talking by radio with Leo when heartbreak hit. Stunned silence held the room as Leo suddenly called out, “We’re going down! We’ve lost power! We’re going down!” Then came the radio silence.

The night wore on sorely. All we could do was to methodically scramble air rescue resources mobilized to leave at daybreak. It was an agonizing night for all.

What we did not know was that Leo was saving the lives of the other three members of the flight crew: the pilot, copilot and the other medical tech. The pilot and copilot were critically injured in the crash and Leo’s fellow medic was seriously hurt. All were trapped in the wreckage. Leo’s arm was badly broken and severely lacerated. Nonetheless, as he gathered his wits, he saw the helicopter was on fire. Death for all was imminent if the flames reached the fuel tank.

What he did next was nothing short of valorous. He struggled, disregarding his pain, and somehow forced his way out of the tangled metal of the chopper. He found a fire extinguisher and put out the growing fire. He found a radio and calmly gave those of us back at the sheriff’s office an accurate assessment, then tended as best he could to the three trapped human beings. All night long. Ultimately, all were hospitalized and the pilot was paralyzed for life.

On that horrible late summer night, Leo, without any purpose of self-aggrandizement, demonstrated the ultimate in Aristotle’s virtue character ethics. He died too young. But it is my hope that Leo’s shining example of caring for others’ welfare before his own will live on in the Durango, La Plata and San Juan counties, and the San Juan Mountains community. That will surely be Leo’s true lasting legacy.

Bill Gardner was La Plata County sheriff for two terms, 1986 to 1994.