8 people rescued after huge Colo. avalanche
DENVER - Eight people were rescued after a huge avalanche knocked two cars off a mountain pass on the main highway to one of the state’s largest ski areas and buried them, authorities said.
Witnesses said the slide on Saturday pushed the cars down about 150 to 200 feet into trees off U.S. 40 near 11,307-foot Berthoud Pass, which leads to Winter Park Resort.
“Our crews said it was the largest they have ever seen. It took three paths,” said Stacey Stegman of the transportation department.
Crews searched the area, which is about 50 miles west of Denver, for other vehicles and believe all have been found, State Patrolman Eric Wynn said.
The trapped motorists were taken to hospitals, Wynn said, but details of their conditions were not available.
Members of Oakwood Road Church in Ames, Iowa, who were on a ski trip were among those swept away by the avalanche, including Darren Johnson, said his father, Don Johnson.
Darren Johnson’s vehicle was the only one of the church’s four-car caravan hit by the snow, his father said.
Don Johnson said his son was treated and released from a hospital, while a passenger in his car, Peter Olsen of Nevada and a sophomore at Iowa State University, was being treated for a broken rib.
The avalanche hit between 10 a.m. and 10:30 and was about 200 to 300 feet wide and 15 feet deep, Wynn said. The area usually has slides 2 to 3 feet deep because crews trigger them before more snow can accumulate, said Spencer Logan of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Despite three snowstorms in as many weeks, the area of the avalanche hasn’t been hit as hard as eastern parts of the state that got up to 4 feet of snow, Logan said. But the pass did get up to 10 inches in the past few days, he said.
Logan said authorities haven’t had time to test all slide areas, and he blamed 30 mph wind, with gusts up to 60 mph Saturday morning, for the avalanche conditions.
“This is a tremendous amount of snow to come down the mountain for us,” Stegman said.
Michael Murphy and his friends were heading to Winter Park when their path was blocked by the avalanche, which he estimated came down minutes before they got to the scene. One friend’s father was about 10 minutes ahead of them, caught on the other side of the avalanche.
“Initially we couldn’t get in cell phone contact with him so we were pretty nervous,” said Murphy, 20, of Boulder.
Murphy’s party and other motorists used avalanche probes and shovels to search for any cars that might have been trapped. He said the two cars tumbled about 150 to 200 feet.
Mile Cikara, who was headed to Winter Park to ski, told KMGH-TV in Denver that he joined others furiously digging out victims. “I along with 30 other people grabbed shovels and started digging to get people out. I had a shovel but people were using their hands, skis, ski poles, whatever, to dig out,” until rescue teams arrived, he said.
The timing meant most traffic headed to the ski area had already passed through.
“Good thing it didn’t happen a couple of hours earlier,” said Darcy Morse, a Winter Park spokeswoman. On an average January weekend day, the resort draws more than 10,000 skiers and snowboarders, with lifts opening at 8:30 or 9 a.m.
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