First responders, bus drivers saved lives on Vail Pass |

First responders, bus drivers saved lives on Vail Pass

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Chris Cooke/Special to the DailyA West Vail Shell tow truck sits in the west lanes of Vail Pass Monday. Tow truck driver Chris Cooke said the estimated 70-car pileup was the worst he's seen in 16 years in the business. "Most of the vehicles involved were completely totaled," he said.

VAIL, Colorado ” Bus driver Chris Michael was preparing to drive his normal route in the Vail Valley when he got a call asking him to pick up stranded travelers on Vail Pass.

So Michael drove up the pass and picked up around 30 people who were left without a ride after an estimated 70-car pileup near the summit of the pass.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Michael, who’s from Australia but lives in Avon. “It was a massive car accident that stretched on as far as you could see.”

Michael and dozens of other people helped save lives in a 70-vehicle pileup on Vail Pass Monday.

“It was just good I could help out,” Michael said.

Eagle River firefighters had to cut several mangled cars open with Jaws of Life to get out trapped people, said Karl Bauer, deputy chief for the Eagle River Fire Protection District.

Firefighters led people to fire trucks and other vehicles to prevent them from becoming hypothermic, Bauer said. Emergency service workers quickly determined who was injured the worst and quickly got them to hospitals in Frisco, he said.

“As bad as it was, it could’ve been worse,” he said.

Blowing snow and bitter cold make the situation even more difficult, said Peter Brandes, operations manager for the Eagle County Ambulance District.

One woman had been hit by a car after she got out of her car, authorities said. Other people had broken legs and cuts on their arms and legs.

But the majority of the people were “bumped and bruised,” Brandes said.

Emergency workers got the two people who were critically injured into one ambulance and to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, he said. Two other ambulances took five or six people each to Vail Valley Medical Center.

“It’s chaos and we try to make order out of chaos,” Brandes said. “That’s one of our biggest jobs.”

Firefighters had been practicing for what they call a “mass casualty” event for a couple years, Eagle River Fire officials said.

At least twice a year, they have done drills simulating plane crashes at Eagle County Airport, collapsed buildings, floods and wildland fires.

“It’s the real thing that really kind of tests our planning and our training,” said John Willson, deputy chief of operations for the Eagle River Fire Protection District. “We find out where we can improve for the next time.”

Not letting eastbound traffic through on Interstate 70 throughout Eagle County ” except for local traffic ” made it easier for ambulances to get up the pass, Brandes said.

During previous crashes and storms that have closed the pass, traffic jams have occurred because the interstate was closed only in Vail, he said.

Still ambulance crews still had to deal with some gridlock during the crash, slowing their travel, Brandes said.

“That’s a problem we’re always going to have,” he said.

Because the pileup happened near the summit of Vail Pass, authorities could draw from emergency workers from Summit and Eagle counties.

“We all depend on each other when we have a huge incident like this to lend a hand,” said Chief Charlie Moore of Eagle River Fire.

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