1976 – Gondola crash tests Vail’s medical team
Among them, they had suffered two fractured spines, one dislocated spine, a bruised and lacerated liver and spleen, a fractured skull, a critical concussion and a nearly severed arm – plus simple fractures, dislocations, bruised organs, wrenched muscles and concussions. The three women who had died at the scene – from massive head injuries – were also brought to the medical center. Each body was placed in a separate room.
The center had no facilities for major surgery or for treating traumatic head and spine injuries, but Flight for Life helicopters were already on the way to Vail to evacuate the most seriously injured.
At this point, no one knew any of the victim’s names, dead or alive; people often don’t bother to carry identification when they ski. The living injured were labeled by wrist bands, for example, “Girl No. 1” or “Man No. 2.”
Word of the accident had spread through Vail’s condo communities, and amazingly enough some three dozen high-priced doctors began arriving one by one at the medical center to volunteer their services, gratis. They assisted the clinic physicians in triage and helped designate what type of medical specialist should work with which case. Soon the waiting room behind the lobby had become a veritable bullpen of medical talent waiting to be put to work.
In the end, each victim had at least one doctor and one nurse assigned to him or her. When the condition of one male passenger deteriorated because of internal bleeding in his liver and spleen, an internist who specialized in that was on the job. When another man required 28 stitches to close a yawning slash across his forehead, a plastic surgeon stepped in to handle the sutures. It seemed as if we had transplanted a metropolitan emergency room to Vail.
The first Flight for Life helicopter arrived shortly after 11 a.m. It came just in the nick of time. The man with the lacerated liver was worsening steadily. A young woman was in a deep coma from a blow to her head. Though unconscious, she was throwing herself around violently. Doctors and nurses tried to calm her so they could take X-rays. When she was finally somewhat still, they removed her down parka and saw that her right arm had been nearly amputated when the car fell. She and the man with the lacerated liver were rushed to the helicopter.
By noon the two of them were under treatment in St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver. By 1 p.m. all treatments of the injured at the Vail clinic had been completed.
Editor’s note: This is the 55th installment of the Vail Daily’s serialization of “Vail: Triumph of a Dream” by Vail Pioneer and Founder Pete Seibert. This excerpt comes from Chapter 11, entitled “Tragedy on the Mountain.” The book can be purchased at the Colorado Ski Museum, as well as bookstores and other retailers throughout the Vail Valley.
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