BAILEY, Colo. (AP) _ Eight people on their way to a banquet honoring a law firm associate died when their twin-engine aircraft crashed near the top of 11,970-foot Windy Peak, authorities said Tuesday.

The Cessna 402 crashed Monday afternoon shortly after leaving Jefferson County Airport near Denver for Monte Vista in southern Colorado.

The still-smoldering wreckage was spotted from a search plane Tuesday morning about 10,500 feet up the mountain, officials said.

Authorities worked Tuesday to recover the bodies and remove them from the nearly inaccessible site 35 miles southwest of Denver.

The cause of the crash was not known, but Park County Sheriff Norm Howey speculated the plane ''may have hit a downdraft. And ... that was it.''

A Chinook helicopter and 12 soldiers from Fort Carson Army Post aided officials at the crash site.

Capt. George C. Manly of the 4th Infantry Division said it appeared the plane crashed ''right into a big boulder, two times the size of the airplane.'' The largest piece of wreckage was about the size of a car door, he said.

Mary Hammond, a spokeswoman for the law firm Carlson, Elliott & Land of Denver, identified the victims as law partners John H. Land of Englewood, and Charles Elliott of Denver, both 36; Susan Thielman, Teri Fredericks and Linda Moschetti, all law firm secretaries and from the Denver area; water engineers Raymond A. Hogan of Englewood and Harlan Erker of Lakewood, who did consulting work for the law firm, and the pilot and owner of the plane, Ivan Nielson of Golden.

They were on their way to a banquet for law firm partner John Carlson, who was being honored for his work on behalf of the Rio Grande Canal Water Users Association, said Ruth Clark, an association secretary in Monte Vista.

She said Carlson drove to the banquet with his family and returned to Denver on Tuesday.

The plane was found about 9:30 a.m. by searchers who were following radar tracking of the missing plane, Colorado Civil Air Patrol spokesman Steve Denes said.

Wind from helicopters carrying investigators briefly rekindled the fire in the wreckage, which was in steep, rugged terrain in central Colorado, Howey said.

''The weather between Salida and the west side of Pikes Peak was pretty bad'' when the plane would have been passing through that area, Denes said.

The pilot had not filed a flight plan, authorities said. The plane was reported missing Monday evening by people waiting for it at San Luis Airport near Monte Vista.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.