1976 – Vail gondola crash kills four
She was hysterical and spoke with an accent; the dispatcher made her repeat the message. Then his call went out immediately. I followed with calls directing specific people to specific positions.
Snowcat drivers got the word, as did every ski instructor, lift operator, policeman, fireman, and all medical center personnel. Ambulance drivers started their engines and snowplow drivers prepared to clear back roads where emergency equipment might have to travel.
A skier told a patroller what the accident looked like from the ground, as quoted in a subsequent Sports Illustrated story:
“One gondola car banged hard against the tower, veered away, then slammed against it again. I saw sparks and an odd white powder, like snow. I watched as the car fell. Like an apple from a tree. No, like a feather. It separated from the cable and fell slowly. Then a second car approached and slammed into the tower. There were people inside. They beat their fists against the glass. Then they fell, too.”
Patrolman Dave Stanish was the first to arrive at the accident scene. He saw that one car had landed upside down about 25 feet up the slope from the other car, which lay upright at the base of Tower 5. The weight of the wheel carriage on the roof of the first car had flipped it over in midair and then did terrible damage to some of the occupants as it smashed through the roof when the car hit the ground.
According to Stanish, it was “a gory mess” inside, looking toward 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!’ It was the ultimate alarm I could come up with.”
Our ski patrol was a proud, cocky bunch, 29 full-time professionals who worked like hell to help people every day of the season. On March 25, the day before the gondolas fell, the patrol had handled 14 accidents: two broken legs, a shoulder fracture, seven knee injuries, and various bruises.
But this was something else: This was disaster.
The second patrolman on the scene was Dennis “Buffalo” Mikottis. He brought a toboggan loaded with special emergency trauma equipment. The patrollers found that two people were dead inside the car that landed upside down: a woman from South Dakota and another woman, 19, from Illinois. A 14-year-old girl was trapped under the women’s bodies. She was unconscious and breathing shallowly. The patrolmen tried to free her. They gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but she died, too.
Fewer than 10 minutes had passed since the cars fell. We were told that half a dozen patrolmen were already on the scene. Ski instructors and cat drivers were arriving and began cordoning off the area. Volunteers started stamping the deep snow around the base of the tower, packing it flat so the rescuers could work without floundering in it.
Editor’s note: This is the 54th 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.