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Avalanche Kills Seven Skiers

Aired January 21, 2003 - 19:23   ET


CARLSON: We're going to take you know to Revelstoke, British Columbia, where authorities are briefing reporters on Monday's deadly avalanche that killed seven skiers, including three Americans. A survivor of that avalanche is expected to speak about what happened. Here it is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... the accident happened shortly before 11:00 yesterday afternoon. A group of 21 backcountry ski mountaineers, part of tour conducted by Selkirk Mountain Experienced Skiing, left the remote mountain lodge for a day of skiing. Three clients elected to stay at the lodge.

The skiers had split into two groups, an upper and a lower group, and were traversing a 30 to 35 degree slope when the avalanche occurred. Part of the upper group, 14, and all of the lower group, seven, were struck by the avalanche, which initially buried 11 people and partially covered two. Rescue operations were started immediately by the owner and the participants, who were not struck by the avalanche.

All of the skiers -- and there were three snowboarders -- had extensive backcountry experience, including professional avalanche awareness, search and rescue, and medical expertise. Helicopters, as I said earlier, were dispatched from Revelstoke to the accident scene, where rescue operations were already in process and several victims had already been recovered.

The bodies of the seven victims were recovered under approximately from one to six feet of snow. The avalanche path had been estimated to have been approximately 75 to 100 feet in width and 300 feet in length. The eighth person who was buried but rescued at the scene suffered no serious injuries, but was airlifted to Queen Victoria Hospital in the afternoon, and he underwent a medical examination before his release yesterday.

The victims in the incident, four Canadians and three Americans, were all returned to Revelstoke in the afternoon. All other persons, including the two police investigators who were in the ski group, were unable to leave yesterday due to inclement weather. Currently, weather conditions approved this afternoon, which allowed 10 of the skiers to be transported to Revelstoke, where they met with us from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and our victim assistance workers.

A list is attached to the news release, which all of you will get identifying all those 10 people. Four other people in the party elected to stay at the Selkirk Mountain Experience Lodge. Our investigators have returned to the scene today and are now conducting snow surveys to determine the condition of the snow pack at the time of the accident.

The local coroner has also contracted the services of two experts who are with the police officials at this time. RCMP have been contacted with the next of kin, and I'm now going to read the names of six of the seven victims. The 50-year-old male from Canmore, Alberta, notification is still ongoing because the family is living in Europe.

From Calgary, Alberta, age 25, is Naomi Hefler (ph); 30-year-old male, Dave Finnery (ph), from New Westminster, British Columbia; Craig Kelly (ph), 36, from Nelson, British Columbia; Kathleen Kessler (ph), 39, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from Truckee, California; Dennis Yates (ph), 50, from Los Angeles, California; and Ralph Lunsford (ph), 49, from Littleton, Colorado.

The RCMP and the coroner's service will continue to conduct their investigation over the next several days, which we'll be providing more information as we talk to investigators. So hopefully, we'll return sometime tonight. I'd now like to hand over to our spokesperson here from the skiers group. I'd ask that everybody listen.

Mr. Seibert has prepared a written statement for everybody here to tell you of the events that took place yesterday. At the end of the statement, I'll ask Mr. Seibert if he wishes to take questions. John, go ahead.

JOHN SEIBERT, AVALANCHE VICTIM: Hello. Thank you. I'm John Seibert from Wasilla, Alaska. I have been asked by our group, who was skiing this week at the Selkirk Mountain Experience, which is SME, to act as our spokesman.

Yesterday, 17 of us, two guides and two SME employees, were skiing from Durrand Glacier Chalet. We were on a one-week ski mountaineering trip which lasts from Saturday to Saturday. Our group was about evenly divided between Canadians and Americans.

On Saturday, we flew up by helicopter from Revelstoke to Durrand Glacier Lodge. The first order of business was about an hour and one half-avalanche beacon training and familiarity course conducted by SME chief guide and owner Rudy Beglinger (ph). All of us on this trip were experienced backcountry skiers and/or snowboarders.

Many of us have taken numerous avalanche awareness and search and rescue courses. Collectively, I estimate our group had over 300 person years of experience in the backcountry. After the avalanche beacon and search and rescue training we did a five-hour ski mountaineering tour near the chalet, climbing and skiing down about 3,000 vertical feet. The following day we all climbed forbidden peak on skis and skied forbidden glacier, climbing and ski descending over 6,000 vertical feet.

On Monday, we planned to ski to the summit of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) up through Swiss Meadows. We departed the chalet about 8:00 AM in two groups. One led by Rudy Beglinger (ph) and the other by his assistant guide. We descended to Cairns Creek (ph) and climbed about 1,000 feet into Swiss Meadows. After a brief stop for a snack, both groups started up an approximate 30 to 35-degree slope. The first group, led by Rudy Beglinger (ph), and the second group led by the assistant guide. On the trip up both Rudy and the assistant guide did snow pack analysis, and all of us clients evaluated the snow pack.

From my 35 years of experience in the backcountry, I saw nothing in the snow pack to indicate to me any more than a minimal avalanche danger. At about 11:00 AM, I was third in line in the second group. I felt the snow settle and heard a loud crack. A few seconds later, the moving snow swept me off my skis and I started down the slope.

I came to rest with my head and left hand exposed. The remainder of my body was locked in concrete hard snow. Some minutes later one of my fellow clients, one of my fellow guests came to me and asked if I could breathe and said there were numerous buried people.

Everyone on the tour was wearing the latest digital avalanche transiever (ph) beacon, and we all had either avalanche probes or ski poles that could be screwed together to make avalanche probes. We all had shovels in our packs.

Stuck in the snow I was visited one or two more times by fellow clients who helped me get my pack open and gave me my shovel. It took me about 20 minutes to dig myself out of the snow. I was not injured.

Once out of the snow, I saw the extent of the avalanche. All of the non-buried clients were busy searching, probing and shoveling. Several of the clients had been found and recovered alive.

Each of us worked with heroic diligence to find our fellow clients, the assistant SME guide and the one missing SME employee.

About 30 to 35 minutes after the avalanche helicopters brought additional support, shovels, probes and avalanche search and rescue expertise.

In all, 13 of us were caught in the slide. Seven of our friends were killed.

The seven skiers and Rudy Beglinger (ph), who were not caught in the slide, worked with extreme professionalism and untiring diligence until the last person was accounted for.

The extreme rapid helicopter arrival and support greatly aided the search effort.

I've been skiing with Rudy Beglinger (ph) at Selkirk, in the Selkirk Mountains of Canada for the last six years. Last year I skied across the West Alps in Switzerland on a 10-day trip with Rudy. Selkirk Mountain experience offers, in my opinion, some of the best safest high mountain, ski mountaineering and ski touring available anywhere.

The clients that visit SME come back year after year to partake of the special experience offered by SME. I feel that this tragic accident was a fluke of nature. There was nothing in my mind that was a warning sign that we should not have been skiing that slope on that day.

The tragic loss of our friends will haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Thank you very much.

QUESTIONS: Will you take any questions?

SIEBERT: I'll take a few.

CARLSON: That was the press conference. John Siebert (ph), a survivor of the avalanche that took place in British Columbia, Craig Kelly, the four-time world championship snowboarder was among those killed in that tragedy.


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