A few minutes before 9:30 a.m. on Friday, March 26, 1976, two gondola cars, each carrying a capacity load of six skiers, plunged 125 feet to the ground at Colorado's Vail ski resort. Three people were killed immediately, two teen-age girls and a housewife. A young man died two days later in a hospital in Denver. The other eight skiers were injured, some severely. It was the worst ski-area accident in U.S. history.
On the cables high above the wrecked gondolas, two more cars smacked together and hung precariously from the line—one held aloft by a single strip of steel one-eighth of an inch thick. At intervals up and down the line, 31 other fiber-glass cars, painted a variety of colors and loaded with skiers, dangled like beads from their cables, some of them 230 feet in the air. One hundred and seventy-six people were stranded.
Here is what happened that Friday in Vail.
No day had ever been more perfect for skiing. Four to eight inches of fresh snow had fallen Thursday night and the morning sky was a deep blue. The temperature was climbing through the 20s. The mountain loomed over Vail, sun-splashed and immaculate, its trails and runs carpeted with feathery snow. The village had been filled with people all week, because this was the spring school break for much of the country, and on Friday morning the town was alive with that special energy that permeates every ski resort when there is new powder snow on the mountain and the sun is on the rise. The ski patrol was up early and on the job.
December 13, 1976
Last March the ski patrol at Vail consisted of 29 full-time professionals, a proud bunch bonded by an intensity of fraternal esteem and a touch of swagger. Vail was one of the first U.S. ski areas to have a professional ski patrol, and it became known as one of the best. Each member is trained in advanced first aid: they take the same 82-hour course ambulance drivers do. They are qualified to treat cardiac cases, to give intravenous treatments, to give morphine and Demerol injections and to handle any medical emergency. Patrolmen also have to master mountain skills ranging from snowmobile repair to avalanche rescue, from storm search techniques to gondola and chair-lift evacuation. The best-paid patrolmen make $1,200 a month.
On the day before the gondolas fell, the patrol had handled 14 accidents on the mountain: two involved broken legs, one a shoulder fracture, seven were knee injuries and the rest various bruises.
Early Friday morning, while the patrolmen checked in at their stations on the mountain, a long line of skiers formed at the base terminal of Gondola II, one of two gondola lift systems at the resort. Almost all the cars were filled to their capacity of six.
Around 9:10 a.m., Ira Potashner, 41, a vice-president of a market research corporation from New York City, and his friend Arnold Cordts, 46, a market planning and research manager from Rochester, N.Y., boarded a red car. They sat together on one side, facing up the hill. Four young men got into the car with them. They were all friends: John Manley, 19; Steve Meoli, 18; John Coniaris, 20; and Greg Dietrich, 19; all of Wayland, Mass. Each car on the line was numbered, though they didn't run in sequence. This was Car No. 25.
The next car in line, Car No. 67, was loaded with three couples who had met a week earlier. They had decided to ski together on the day of the accident. Next came Gene Reese, 45, an assistant lumberyard manager from Custer, S.D., his wife Darlene, 42, and his sister, Mrs. John Anderson, 37, of Longmont, Colo. The Reeses and Mrs. Anderson got into a yellow car, No. 60, and they were joined by three girls, the Pasterkamp sisters, Janice, 14, and Carol, 18, from Englewood, Colo., and Carol's roommate from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., Karen Togtman, 19, whose home was in Palos Park, III. Along with Richard Pasterkamp, 47, the sisters' father, the girls had driven from the Pasterkamps' condominium in Dillon, 30 miles away across Vail Pass.
While the girls waited in line, Pasterkamp went to buy lift tickets. By the time he returned, the queue waiting to board the gondola had grown even longer. "The attendants asked me not to crack the line," said Pasterkamp, "so I gave the girls their tickets and I went over to take the chair lifts up and meet them at Eagle's Nest [the top terminal for Gondola II] when they got up there." The three girls sat on one side of the gondola, the Reese party on the other.
The gondola cars are small and relatively cramped; with six people inside, their knees almost touch. There are windows all around. The door is latched from the outside by an attendant before the car takes off; another attendant at the top opens it. Skis are carried in small bins outside the car; the skiers carry their poles.
At about 9:15 Car No. 60 began its ascent. And the first faint signs of trouble began to appear. There is a chair lift that runs up the Lionshead section parallel to Gondola II. It is about 50 feet away, across a run called Bwana, and anyone riding the chair lift can easily see and hear the cars on the gondola as they ascend the cables in graceful arcs between a series of huge steel towers. The attendant at the top of the chair lift was Greg Bemis; he recalled that a little after 9:15 a skier who had just got off reported that he had heard rumblings along the gondola cable. Then two more skiers came by and said the cars were making weird noises as they went over Tower No. 4. Bemis telephoned patrolman Roger Hesseltine, who was manning the telephone and radio console at the summit. Hesseltine phoned a maintenance foreman to report the noise.
At approximately the same time, two gondola operators at Eagle's Nest—Richard Broeker and Tom Sutton—were getting the first puzzled and anxious reports from off-loading passengers. A skier told them a strand of wire was hanging from one of the gondola cables at Tower 4. "He was not alarmed," Broeker recalled. He and Sutton thought it might be a strand of grease or a length of string. This sort of thing had been reported before.
But back down the cable line, passengers began to feel that something was radically wrong. Skier Stewart Evans recalled, "Our car bounced five or six times as it approached Tower 4. We all exclaimed and looked up. We noted the cable was frayed. I was first out of the car at the top and immediately told the operator. He said, 'We know it,' and went on to unload the next car. I proceeded outside to put on my skis. Then the lift stopped."
There had been still another report of a violent bounce at Tower 4, and Sutton had switched off the gondola machinery. As a matter of routine, he took the last passenger who had reported the trouble into the ski patrol office to talk with patrolmen Dennis Mikottis and Dave Stanish. Mikottis recalled, "The passenger said the strand was hanging down 30 to 40 feet. I asked him if it was on the side the cars were coming up on and he said, Yup.' My partner called radio control to tell them the gondola was shut down—that's routine. I got on the radio and started calling for a maintenance man to contact me by telephone. I didn't want to say anything about unraveling cables on the radio because the system goes all over the mountain. I didn't want to start any false alarms. We logged this report at 9:23 a.m. We were told to stand by, and 10 seconds later we had another call from dispatcher Hesseltine who said, 'We have a report that two cars are on the ground near Tower 5.' We immediately went down to rescue."
Bill Brandsetter, 19, a skier from New Jersey, recalled, "Through the trees I heard, then saw, a gondola car bang hard against the tower, veer away, then slam against it again. I saw sparks and an odd white powder, like snow. I watched as it shuddered and then, like an apple from a tree—no, like a feather—the car simply separated and fell slowly. Then a second car approached and slammed into the jammed arm on the tower. There were people inside. They beat their fists against the glass. Then it, too, fell. I didn't see it hit. The trees obscured my view...."
Ira Potashner, who was in Car No. 25, the first to fall, recalled, "We reached one tower and the noise was much greater than usual and there was a lot more buffeting. Then we hit the next tower and it seemed as if we got stuck. There was a great deal of shaking, almost as if we were in a container that somebody was shaking. There was a lot of screaming inside...and we were dropping!"
Greg Dietrich, another skier in Car No. 25, recalled, "The ride started to get really rough. It made us all look up at Eagle's Nest, thinking, hoping, that we could make it there. We all thought we could. Then we approached the next tower, and the car started banging against it. The car banged against it and slid back and banged against it again and slid back and banged against it again; like all the windows were busting out and everything."
Meanwhile, Gene Reese and the others in Car No. 60 were taking an awful buffeting over the unraveled cable at Tower 4. "The whole car was just jumping up and down, vibrating and making one hellish commotion," he recalled. "I turned around to see if I could make out a number on the tower above us and just as I turned I saw it. And my sister saw it at the same time. The first car fell. It went tumbling down. Everybody in our car got panicky because by then we were really vibrating. The girls—the other girls—turned around and looked and they saw this car tumbling. They started screaming and hollering. And I yelled, 'Everybody sit down!' I said, 'Maybe they'll get it stopped!' So everybody sat down and we kept getting closer to the tower, and that other car [Car No. 67] was jammed up on it now. The thing was just ajumpin' and ajerkin'. Now I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe we'll hit that car and drive it on through the tower and then we'll be hung up. And then they'll get it shut off.' And just about that time we hit. Oh, God, did we ever hit! I saw the fiber-glass kind of shattering and then we just tipped off. We just kind of pitched over. I screamed, 'Everybody put your head between your knees!' Just about that time we smacked and we hit. That's the last thing I remember until I came to on my head."
U.S. Forest Service investigators worked for several weeks to reconstruct the sequence of events. They interviewed dozens of witnesses, workers and victims and compiled a detailed report.
The report states that a lengthening strand of "track" cable had come loose at Tower 4. The cable is stationary and acts as a track for the four wheels atop each gondola. The cable is made of layers of tightly wrapped strands of steel, woven together to form the smoothest possible surface for the wheels. The weight of the gondola plus six passengers (some 1,900 pounds) had further unraveled the strand and had broken several more strands. Before the system was shut down, about 115 feet of cable had partially unraveled. These strands snagged and dragged at the wheels, causing violent shaking as each car went past.
The cars are pulled up the hill at about 8 mph by a heavily braided moving cable just below the track cable. Each car is clamped to this haul cable by steel jaws.
Several cars were pulled across the unraveled section at Tower 4 and went on up the hill. Then came the red Car No. 25 carrying the four young friends and the two men from New York. At this point the frayed cable untracked the front set of wheels on the gondola's roof. But the haul cable continued dragging Car 25 between Tower 4 and Tower 5, a distance of 1,150 feet. Here the derailed wheels jammed and the gondola could not go past Tower 5. The tremendous updrag of the haul cable kept trying to pull the car uphill. The iron jaws of the clamps loosened. The car was pulled violently against the tower, then fell back, then struck the tower again. Banging into the tower, it made dull explosive sounds that could be heard on the chair lift across nearby Born Free ski run.
Finally, the jaws broke and the heavy braided haul cable was freed. It kept moving steadily, grinding and filing against the wheel carriage. It began working as a saw, chewing through the steel support that kept the car hanging on the line.
Finally, the haul cable severed the support. Car 25 plunged into the snow below. Its sawed-off wheel carriage was left hanging, a tangled mass blocking the way through Tower 5. No more cars could move through. As they arrived they jammed up. Their clamps were wrenched loose and the haul cable started sawing away at the supports.
The next gondola in line was Car 67, carrying the three couples. It ran into the tangled carriage left when Car 25 fell. The jaws on the haul cable broke. The cable began its sawing action, steadily cutting. Then the sawing stopped—no one yet knows why—with one-eighth of an inch remaining, as the car behind it, yellow No. 60 carrying the Reeses and the three girls, glided up the cable. Now Car 67, its clamps broken, began to slide backward down the haul cable. It smashed into oncoming Car 60.
Somehow Car 67, dangling by its thread of steel, stayed aloft. But Car 60 jumped off the line. Its wheel carriage remained attached to the car top. As it fell, the weight of the carriage tipped the car over and it landed upside down in the snow 23 feet up the hill from Car 25. The impact forced the carriage through the car roof, lethally battering the passengers on their heads just as they hit the ground.
Above, Car 67 was sliding farther down the cable. Another car was rolling up toward it, but at this point the entire system was shut off. Almost gently, the two cars slapped together, then hung motionless, about 40 feet down the hill from the tangle of metal that was blocking the passage through Tower 5.
An unidentified woman skiing Born Free had watched the two cars fall. She skied to one of the emergency phones that dot the trails. Dispatcher Hesseltine took her message. She was hysterical.
Hesseltine had her repeat the message twice just to make sure. She spoke in a foreign accent and was hard to understand. Hesseltine knew that the gondola had been shut down. He radioed: "Eagle's Nest. Report two gondolas down on Tower 5. Investigate and notify please." The call was picked up by the walkie-talkies and radios of the ski patrol. Hesseltine also alerted 15 patrolmen in the room next to him. "Everybody get ready," he said. Then he called John Murphy, assistant patrol director, at the patrol office at the bottom of Lionshead. He said, "Some lady just called to say two gondolas fell-off the line."
Tower 5 is about 680 yards down the hill from Eagle's Nest. Patrolmen Mikottis and Stanish hurriedly put on their red patrol parkas. Stanish took a walkie-talkie and stepped into his skis. He grabbed a toboggan equipped with blankets and splints and raced down the sunny slope to the scene. Mikottis stayed behind to load a collapsible steel-backboard stretcher and a special emergency trauma kit on another toboggan. Two minutes after Stanish disappeared down the hill, Mikottis also was on his way, pulling his toboggan. Less than three minutes had elapsed since the cars fell.
Dave Stanish got to the scene and saw the cars on the ground. He glanced up and saw the two cars hanging precariously above. He looked into the gondola nearest the base of Tower 5. "It was a gory mess inside," he recalled. "I looked at the car down the hill. There was a guy just crawling out of a window. There was a lot of moaning. I yelled down to him, 'Is anyone killed in there?' He said no. I radioed in: 'Major medical emergency! Major medical emergency!' It was the ultimate alarm that I could come up with."
Within seconds Hesseltine transmitted an all-points bulletin of the disaster at Lionshead over the Vail Associates' radio system and by telephone. Drivers of the mountain-grooming cats and tractors heard it. Offices of the ski school heard it. The Vail police department, fire department and the medical clinic got the word. Ambulance drivers started their vehicles. Pete Burnett, head of the Vail Public Works Department, heard it, and within moments had snowplow crews on the mile-long back-street route where ambulances would be shuttling victims from the lower mountain to the clinic. "I want those streets plowed down and shaved so clear you can see asphalt!" yelled Burnett. Within two minutes there was activity all over the village and mountain in response to Dave Stanish's cry of alarm.
Jim Fish, 40, a cat driver who had just finished hauling supplies to the restaurant at Eagle's Nest, gunned his tractor down the hill to Tower 5, leaped off his cat and followed Stanish to the two cars. "One car was upside down," he said. "Stanish was checking things real quick to see who was worst off. I went down to the other car. This car was buried and the door wouldn't come open. I had a little short shovel from the cat and I dug and dug like crazy. The door was still stuck shut, so I grabbed it and I twisted it off. Then I went back to the other car. Stanish was in it already. I reached in and got one guy by the belt. The people were heaped inside there like spaghetti. The thing was to try to get them some air. They were on top of each other."
Mikottis arrived and went to help Stanish, who had forced his way into the uphill car, No. 60, which had landed upside down. "When I got in there, there wasn't much room and I tried to break the window to get more access," Stanish said. "There wasn't much treatment we could do. I checked all the life signs and cleaned out some blood and mucus from a couple of people who were hurt. Mainly we just tried to get them out without hurting them any more than they already were."
"We could see right away two people were dead," Mikottis said. "The younger girl was under them. She was bleeding heavily from the mouth. She was breathing in shallow gasps. When Dave had the windows kicked out, we moved a guy that was on top of her and started trying to get some of the other people off her. Just then a guy skied over. He identified himself as a doctor and he said, 'Don't move them. I think they have broken necks.' And I said, 'If we don't move 'em out, that girl is going to die under them.' " The skiing doctor moved to help the other wounded.
Moments later, another doctor arrived with his wife, who said she was a nurse. Together, she and Mikottis worked over Janice Pasterkamp. The nurse began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while Mikottis pumped at the girl's heart. There was no hope; the internal bleeding was too heavy. Janice died.
Tourists and a couple of other cat drivers arrived on the scene, and they asked if they could help. The snow was waist-deep since the area was not in the customary line of skiing and had not been packed. Once ski patrolmen and rescuers stepped out of their skis, they sank to their waists in the soft snow, floundering about as they tried to help. The deep snow had acted as a cushion for the falling-cars and possibly saved lives, but for the rescuers it was nightmarish. Mikottis shouted to some skiers to stamp out an area where the injured could be laid out.
Stanish and Mikottis and the skiing doctors sorted out the more critically hurt, most of whom were unconscious, and began administering first aid. "We kept working, taking care of the worst-injured people, trying to keep everybody alive," recalled Mikottis. "I knew more patrolmen would be coming in a couple of minutes. Every time I saw a red jacket—I didn't need to see the face—I knew things were getting better."
Within moments, half a dozen patrolmen were on the scene. Some had brought toboggans to carry the injured down. Some carried packs with first-aid kits and narcotics. They began helping Stanish, Mikottis and the doctors with splints, backboards, shots of Demerol and morphine. Ski instructors who had heard the call and cat drivers began cordoning off the accident area with the help of volunteers. No more than 10 minutes had passed since the cars fell.
The first and most critical decision made by Stanish and Mikottis was that they would give only the most essential first-aid treatment at the scene, just enough to stabilize the injured for a quick trip by cat Or toboggan down the mountain to the Vail Valley Medical Center.
The Vail clinic is uniquely equipped to handle ski accidents—the area averages 1,400 ski injuries a season—but although the clinic can attend to routine fractures and injuries, it has no facilities for major surgery and no way of surgically treating serious head and spine injuries. Thus, when the clinic administrator. Chuck Tubbs, was told that two cars were down, he telephoned St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. He asked it to dispatch its Flight for Life helicopters to Vail and its fixed-wing craft to nearby Eagle airport for evacuation of the injured. Because the weather was perfect, this was a matter of only 40 minutes' flying time for the helicopters, up over the Great Divide and directly onto the parking lot behind the clinic. Had there been storms over the Rockies, a caravan of ambulances and vans would have had to carry the injured to hospitals at Leadville or Grand Junction, 50 and 130 miles away.
When the first call came to the clinic at about 9:30, four doctors were seeing patients. Though they are accustomed to being interrupted to work on injured skiers brought to the clinic, it is rare that physicians are summoned to the mountain. But once the clinic knew that two cars and 12 people were down, two doctors were dispatched to the scene. Dr. Thomas Steinberg, 52, who had moved to Vail from Metuchen, N.J. in 1965, donned a parka and a pair of after-ski boots and rushed to the ambulance garage. In his bag was an extra quantity of pain-killing drugs. With him was Dr. William Holm, 38, a native of Minnesota who had moved his practice to Vail in 1971. Both rode in the ambulance to a prearranged pick-up point where Forest Road dead-ends just below the Born Free ski run. The doctors were to be met by a snowmobile or a cat, which would drive them up the mountain.
So quickly did they arrive—three minutes after the first call for help, according to Dr. Steinberg—that there was no vehicle there to transport them. After waiting a couple of minutes, a snowmobile driven by ski patrolman Lou Livingston came roaring up. Dr. Steinberg climbed on behind, and Livingston asked where he was supposed to go. "Up there!" shouted Steinberg, pointing up Born Free, and the snowmobile went bucking and snarling up the mountain. Dr. Holm waited below with a supply of back splints, a suction machine and other bulky equipment until a cat arrived to pick him up.
Dr. Steinberg estimated that he arrived at the accident scene less than 15 minutes after the cars fell. "The ski patrol was completely in control when I got there," he recalled. "By the time I arrived, they had already sent four people down by toboggan—the four worst injured. There were already eight patrolmen working plus the two doctors who happened to ski by."
Dr. Steinberg was briefed by Stanish and Mikottis: they had given narcotics to two patients, two others needed immediate treatment. Steinberg looked at Gene Reese, who had been dragged out of Car 60 with a bad facial cut and painful back, head and abdominal injuries, and vetoed a pain-killer shot because of the head injury. Steinberg then gave Steve Meoli from Car 25 a shot of Demerol, eased his dislocated shoulder into its socket, and helped ski patrolmen put a stabilizing splint on his fractured leg. All the while, the doctor was floundering about in the waist-deep snow. "It was like a bad dream," he said. "It was so difficult to move around. Then after a while I forgot about it."
The injuries suffered in the two cars were quite different. Unlike Car 60, Car 25 landed right side up, and the shock of the impact was transmitted up through the spines and internal organs of its passengers. Among the nine survivors of the two cars, there were two fractured spines, one dislocated spine, a bruised and lacerated liver and spleen, a fractured skull, a critical concussion, a dislocated shoulder and a nearly severed arm—as well as simple fractures, dislocations, bruised organs, wrenched muscles and concussions. The dead at the scene—Mrs. Darlene Reese, Karen Togtman and Janice Pasterkamp—had all been dealt massive head injuries in Car 60.
As the doctors and patrolmen worked with the injured, many skiers offered to help. Among them was Dick Pasterkamp, completely unaware that the victims included his two daughters and their friend.
He recalled, "When I heard there was trouble, I was at Eagle's Nest waiting for the girls to come up and I never thought they were involved. I skied down, saw the crowd and decided maybe I could help. I had some first-aid training years ago. I helped carry some people and load them on toboggans. I was there quite a while and I think I even helped carry Mrs. Anderson and that fellow Reese, who were with my kids. I was real impressed with the way the ski patrol handled the injured. I stayed until most everyone was out. The dead were there, but they were covered. I never thought for a moment that my kids were involved in this. I skied down the mountain and I called my wife in Dillon and said, if you hear about this on TV don't worry, it's not our kids.' That's what I told her. That's what I believed."
At about 10 a.m., Dr. Holm arrived in a cat at the base of Tower 5. Within moments, he was on the way down the mountain with two injured strapped to the vehicle. Gene Reese was groaning on a steel stretcher. Steve Meoli was in less obvious agony, probably because of the drugs he had been given. Dr. Holm recalled, "It was a terribly rough ride, straight down the mountain. The cats were very uncomfortable. I think people who were taken down on toboggans were much more comfortable." An ambulance was waiting at Forest Road to take the doctor and the two victims to the clinic.
The six most badly injured victims were now being treated in the clinic. The three less seriously hurt were wrapped in blankets and brought down on toboggans with ski patrolmen and ski instructors shepherding them. When they reached the clinic, about an hour had elapsed since the cars fell. A short time later the bodies of the dead arrived. Each was put in a separate room.
At this point, no one in the clinic knew any of the victims' names; people often don't bother to carry identification when they ski. The injured were labeled by wristbands that said "Girl No. 1," "Man No. 2," etc. The acting head nurse, Peggy Jacobsgaard, 30, whose husband Jim is a ski patrolman, had begun preparing for the victims' arrival the instant the report came through. "I just ad-libbed," she said. Dr. Steinberg said, "Peggy was the most golden of them all."
Realizing that there could be as many as (but no more than) 12 victims, Mrs. Jacobsgaard had set up an emergency ward in the clinic lobby. She had a dozen beds carried there and rolled in emergency crash carts loaded with high trauma equipment. She summoned off-duty nurses, as well as a number of retired nurses. She arranged to clear the X-ray facilities, all emergency equipment. She got out forms for tabulating the injuries and the treatments diagnosed for individual patients and organized the receptionists and secretaries to keep records on the incoming patients. As word of the accident spread through the expensive condominiums and posh apartments of the rich little resort, doctors began arriving to volunteer their services. Soon there were 30 or 35 doctor-volunteers on hand. Peggy Jacobsgaard arranged for one secretary to interview each physician, making notes on his specialty, background, emergency experience. When the first patients were brought in, Jacobsgaard assisted the clinic physicians in the "triage" duty, meaning the designation of who should be treated first, how and by which doctor.
Each patient ultimately had at least one doctor and one nurse in attendance. In a waiting room beyond the bed-filled lobby was a kind of bullpen of medical talent—some two dozen doctors drinking coffee and chatting as they waited to see if they would be needed. Some were badly needed. When it was found that Arnold Cordts' condition was rapidly deteriorating because of internal bleeding in the area of his liver and spleen, a specialist was on hand to take the case. When Gene Reese required 28 stitches to close a yawning slash across his forehead, there was a plastic surgeon to handle the sutures.
The first helicopter arrived from Denver shortly after 11 a.m. The victims who were loaded aboard were Arnold Cordts, whose internal injuries were rapidly worsening, and Carol Pasterkamp. She was in a deep coma from a blow to her head. She was unconscious, yet tossing herself about violently while doctors and nurses tried to calm her so they could take X rays. When she was finally calmed, it was discovered that inside her down parka, her right arm had been nearly amputated by some part of the car.
By noon, barely 2½ hours after the accident, she and Cordts had been flown over the Rockies and were under treatment at St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. The evacuations to Denver continued until 2:30, the helicopters landing in a parking lot behind the clinic. At one point, a press chopper dropped down, forcing a hospital helicopter to swerve off and hover while an argument between Vail officials and a reporter about "the public's right to know" ensued. Ultimately the newsman and his pilot took off, allowing the evacuation of victims to continue.
The names of the victims were not known until well into the day. Phone lines were snarled throughout Vail as hundreds of people telephoned from all over the U.S. to ask about children or friends who may have been on Gondola II. A crowd of some 200 anxious people assembled in front of the clinic, waiting for news and the names of the injured and the dead.
Gradually, one by one, the victims became known. The body of Mrs. Reese was identified an hour after it reached the clinic; by an odd quirk of fate, a retired nurse who came in to help had been at dinner with the Reeses the night before and she was able to identify Mrs. Reese. Finally, there were only the three young girls—two dead, the third in a deep coma in Denver.
Michael Carlisle, 29, the fire chief of Vail, is also the county coroner. It was his duty to identify the two dead girls. "Eventually, we figured it would boil down to a process of elimination," he said. "But that meant we might have to wait until all the cars still on the line were evacuated to see who was missing. We got a list of the girls' clothing and belongings and we wrote down hair color, eyes, height, weight and had it Xeroxed so if anyone called, we'd be able to check specifics. We took Polaroid pictures of their faces. Eventually, we knew someone would come asking about them."
After helping at the accident scene, Dick Pasterkamp had stayed at the bottom of Gondola II, hoping the girls would come down after they were evacuated from their car. "I stayed there until maybe almost two o'clock," he recalled. "I asked here and there if anyone had seen them. Finally a guy asked me if I had anybody missing, and I said, yes, I had three girls missing, but I was pretty positive they weren't hurt. See, I didn't know that they had some people still unidentified, so I never gave it a thought. I gave the fellow my name and a quick description of the girls. He left.
"He returned in a few minutes and asked me to go over to the clinic. It still never dawned on me that my kids could be involved. I thought, well, sure it's possible to have one person unidentified but never three. There were all these people outside the clinic. The door was locked, but I knocked. A man named Tubbs took me to his office and gave me a list of the clothes Carol had been wearing. Well, it still didn't register because part of her outfit belonged to her aunt. I called my wife in Dillon and asked her what the girls had been wearing. She told me, but I kept trying to throw her off balance, to make sure there was no mistake. There wasn't any, and I hung up and said the clothes belonged to my daughter Carol. It was then they told me that they had this party badly hurt down at St. Anthony's.
"That registered. But as soon as I got that, the coroner walked in. He showed me two Polaroid pictures. They were of Janice and Karen. Then he asked me what the patch on my shoulder stood for. It was a special patch, a wooden shoe and some skis. Ten years ago a bunch of us, 10 couples all of Dutch ancestry, had it made up when we skied together. The coroner said one of the dead girls had a patch like that on her parka.
"He asked me if I wanted to make positive identification of the bodies. I said no. I said that if my wife called back to tell her I'd already left and not to mention anything about the kids. The coroner called Karen's sister-in-law in Denver and I took off for Dillon."
Coroner Carlisle and Clinic Administrator Tubbs spoke to a state trooper after Dick Pasterkamp left. They asked him to trail the bereaved father the 30 miles back across Vail Pass to Dillon. "He had taken such blows," said Tubbs, "we just wanted to be sure he didn't do something to him-self." There was no reason to worry: Dick Pasterkamp, a tall, burly blond man, slow-talking and calm, a devout member of the Christian Reformed Church, was as solid as Vail Mountain itself that day and remained in control through Janice's funeral and Carol's pain-racked recovery. By 3 p.m., the work with the injured and the dead at the clinic had come to an end.
On the mountain, the ski patrol was still laboring to bring down the 176 people trapped in the 31 cars that hung high above the ground. When Patrol Director Paul Testwuide arrived at the scene of the accident, he looked at the line of cars hanging up and down the mountain for the full 9,274-foot length of the gondola. Contemplating their evacuation, he told a patrolman, "We're going to be working in the dark."
The Vail patrol has drilled for years on evacuating the gondolas. They had never had to do it, but every patrolman had to be able to perform such a rescue. To evacuate a gondola a patrolman has to climb a 135-foot tower, carrying an evacuation "bike" on his back. This is a small steel contraption with rolling wheels that lock on to the track cable. The rider stands on foot pieces, hangs below the cable and glides along it to a disabled car. Attached to a safety sling, he then climbs onto the slanting roof of the car with slippery ski boots, leans over and tells the trapped occupants what to do. It is a high-wire performance as daring as a trapeze act. But the ski patrolmen of Vail like to ride the bikes for fun and exhibition. On St. Patrick's Day, nine days before the accident, they had performed a series of spine-chilling training races down the cables of Vail's Gondola I for crowds of skiers, riding their bikes like madmen and reaching speeds of up to 40 mph—all at heights of 50 to 70 feet.
Now at the base of Tower 5, Patrolman Richard (Chupa) Nelson looped a length of rope and a length of chain around his neck and strapped an evacuation bike to his back. It was roughly 10:30 a.m. Inside Car No. 67 were Dr. and Mrs. Richard Cooper of Woodbridge, Conn., the Stephen Beckermans of Livingston, N.J. and the Allen Comptons of Lithia Springs, Ga. They had been sitting there for more than an hour. They knew exactly how slender was the strip of steel that kept them from plummeting to the snow, for Beckerman had stuck his head out a window and looked at it. "We hung there cockeyed," Steve Beckerman recalled. "If the wind had blown or we had moved one foot either way, we would have fallen." The six passengers could hear the moans from the injured below. They could hear the conversations of ski patrolmen working on the injured, hearing them telling each other that they would have to move the victims aside in case any of the cars above fell. The three couples sat perfectly still—and perfectly silent for a time. "We were even afraid to talk, as though our voices might shake the car," said Mrs. Beckerman. "We all braced ourselves," said Mrs. Cooper, "because we knew our car was going to drop. We knew we were going to go down."
John Murphy, 29, assistant ski patrol director, climbed Tower 5 to see what could be done with Car 67. The tower is 126 feet high and the rungs are small round steel rods. Ski patrolmen climb it wearing heavy rigid ski boots, approximately the equivalent of having a large hard plaster cast on each foot and ankle. Murphy was asked how it was possible to clamber about on slippery cold steel so confidently in such footwear. "It's nothing," he said. "Your toes just seem to grow and grow until they're out there gripping the rungs right through your ski boots."
Murphy realized the car had to be stabilized by binding it to the cable. He climbed down and talked to Chupa Nelson. They agreed that Chupa would pass his rope, then his chain through the windows of the car and make them fast on the cable. Murphy and Nelson climbed the tower. They inched out on the girders closest to the car. Then Nelson attached his bicycle to the cables and rolled down the 40 feet toward the car, 125 feet above the ground, playing out the rope that was attached to the tower. He did not dare climb onto the roof for fear his weight would send the car down, so he hung from the bike.
"I saw that the people inside were really nervous, but they were calm," said Nelson. "I spoke to them matter-of-factly and I said, 'O.K., I'm going to do some things and we need your help. I'll explain to you what's going to happen, and if you have any questions when I'm finished, ask me.' " He explained that the rope (which tested at 5,000 pounds) would be passed through the car, out one window and back in another, and would have to be tied around the center pole in the car. "Can any of you tie a secure knot—a bowline?" asked Nelson. None of the six was sure he could, so Nelson said, "Just tie the knot into itself, O.K.?" He recalled, "There was a bearded guy who said he knew how to do that. So we got the rope through there O.K. and secured it to the cable. The rope was strong enough to hold the car, but we didn't know whether it might be cut. So we also snaked the chain down the cable, wrapped it through the car a couple of times and snatch-hooked it. It was cumbersome, but now they were perfectly secure."
Nelson climbed onto the roof of the car, opened the hatch and had the six occupants throw to the ground an evacuation string that was stowed under a seat. A patrolman on the ground tied a length of line and a small diaperlike harness to the string, and the occupants of the car pulled this up to the gondola. Then they handed the evacuation line to Nelson on top of the car, who attached it to the cable with carabiners. One end of the line was dropped to the ground again and the evacuation seat was attached to the other end. One at a time, the passengers climbed into the seat and, with two patrolmen on the ground belaying the rope, were lowered slowly to safety below. It took about 15 minutes to evacuate Car 67. When the last pale and shaken occupant was assisted out of the evacuation seat, a smattering of weak but happy applause could be heard from the passengers in the four or five cars hanging nearby.
Now evacuation teams of patrolmen went to work in earnest up and down the line of Gondola II. Chupa Nelson stayed aloft to tackle the car next to No. 67. Five other patrolmen shouldered their gear and climbed other towers, glided down cables on their bikes, and began the long and exhausting process of bringing down 170 more anxious prisoners from 30 gondola cars.
There were no cases of hysteria, no stories of people refusing to go, nor were there any injuries. One skier calmly told Chupa Nelson. "I am terrified. I can't make myself drop over the edge of the car. Please, when you think I'm ready, just give me a slight shove. I know I'll be all right, but I need some help getting out." "They were hungry as hell and there were a lot of them with wet pants." John Murphy said.
Some skiers were trapped in their cars for more than six hours. But the last man was evacuated at 4:15 p.m., long before darkness fell.
The only near-crisis came when a press helicopter hovered just above the cables, its blast of downwash causing the gondola cars to sway. After frantic attempts by the rescue teams to wave it away and to contact it by radio, the chopper finally flew off.
As the passengers reached the ground, ski instructors served them food and drink. After their skis were lowered, the evacuees were given a choice of skiing down or riding down in cats. Ninety percent chose to ski to the bottom.
An hour or so after the last skier was rescued, a lone patrolman started down from Eagle's Nest. He carried a bullhorn. The sun was beginning to set and the mountain was empty of skiers. He skied to a point beneath the first dangling car and shouted up through the bullhorn, asking if there was anyone left inside. There was no answer. This eerie act was repeated again and again all the way down the mountain. There was no answer from any car. By the time the patrolman had reached the bottom of Gondola II, it was almost dark. The day was over.
In the aftermath of the accident, a number of things happened. The next morning Gary Wall, the young police chief of Vail, went to the mountain and spent most of the day investigating the possibility of sabotage on the cable. "I hung out over the tower looking for something—anything—a cold chisel mark, any evidence at all that something criminal had taken place. There was nothing." Vail Associates hired consulting 'firms to examine the cable and find what caused it to fray. The State of Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over all ski lifts in Colorado, had an engineer do the same thing. The Tramway Board engineer and the investigators hired by Vail arrived at the same conclusion three months later: the sheathing strands on the cable had probably been weakened by stresses that were a result of a design flaw in the original placement of the towers on Gondola II. To correct this flaw, Vail Associates eventually spent $2 million on Gondola II. Since the same flaw was said to be present in Gondola I, the company decided to remove that gondola and install new, faster chair lifts at a cost of $1 million. Testing on Gondola II began on Nov. 22 and it is scheduled to open in mid-December. Two new chair lifts have replaced Gondola I.
Steve Meoli of Wayland, Mass. died suddenly and unexpectedly two days after he had been transferred to St. Anthony's Hospital. The cause of death was the rupture of the major blood vessel leading from his heart. He had been cheerful, even answering questions for newspapermen, immediately after the accident. The following day he complained he had no feeling in his right leg, then in both legs. A huge bruise began forming on his chest. He went into surgery. He died early on Sunday morning.
Carol Pasterkamp, who had nearly lost her right arm and suffered a monumental concussion, has begun to learn to write with her right hand again. For several months after the accident, she could remember nothing that had occurred to her for two days before the car fell and nothing for two weeks afterward. Her minister, her father and her mother told her repeatedly that her sister Janice had died, but she did not entirely grasp the gravity of the information until one day in the middle of June when she began to weep. Other victims have had recurrences of pain from their injuries. But none was paralyzed, which is amazing considering the large number of spinal injuries, the kind of terrain and the distance each victim had to be carried over before reaching fully equipped hospital facilities at the bottom of the mountain.
It has been reported that nine lawsuits have been filed against Vail Associates, three of which also cite Bell Engineering of Switzerland, which was involved in the design and construction of Gondola II. They are said to be in the amount of $20.2 million. Separately, Ira Potashner is suing Vail and Bell jointly for $30 million. Legal action will likely continue for years.