1976 – Tragedy on the mountain
I wasn’t surprised or concerned, because it was a beautiful sunny morning, a perfect skiing day. It was also spring vacation for schools throughout the country, and hundreds of families were at Vail.
Then I noticed that the gondola wasn’t running. The brightly colored cabins dangled like jelly beans above the dazzling snowy slopes. It wasn’t unusual, however, for the cars to stop from time to time, for a variety of reasons. It crossed my mind that this would be a bad day for the gondola to need repairs, but I didn’t dwell on it and went back to work.
Maybe two minutes later the phone rang. I glanced to see if the gondola was moving yet. It wasn’t. I picked up the phone; the call was from ski patrol headquarters.
“An accident on the gondola. Tower Five,” a voice said calmly. “Cars have fallen. We don’t know about casualties yet.”
“Everybody’s on it?” I asked.
“Everybody on the mountain.”
“Keep me posted. I’m staying here.”
A reflex kicked in that I had developed during my years in the 10th Mountain Division: Don’t panic in the face of a crisis; stay where you are; don’t move until you know what has happened.
As a former ski patrolman, I would have liked to have grabbed a snowmobile and gone right to the site of the accident. But the best men were already up there. My job was here.
My first call was to the Vail hospital to find out if they knew of the accident. They were already in the process of informing the Flight for Life operation in Denver that helicopters might be needed to bring badly hurt victims to the better-equipped hospitals there.
From then on, as the dark hours of this initially brilliant day inched past, I stayed at my desk, near the phone.
Slowly the terrible truth became clear. Two of our gondola cars, each carrying a capacity load of six skiers, had gotten snagged on frayed cable. After being thrown about briefly, they fell 125 feet to the ground at the base of a tower. Three people were dead: two teenage girls and a woman. The other nine passengers were injured, some severely.
After the two cars fell, the two cars behind them collided at the tower, came to a jarring halt, and now dangled precariously. At intervals all the way up and down the 9,274-foot-long gondola line other cars hung from the cable, some as high as 170 feet in the air. In all, 176 people were stranded.
Editor’s note: This is the 53rd 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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