Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2005-01-09
Submitted By: WWAN
State: NV
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 1 snowboarder caught, buried, and killed



Monday, January 10, 2005

Copyright ? Las Vegas Review-Journal

LEE CANYON TRAGEDY: Teen dies in avalanche

Police say victim's body discovered about 9:45 p.m.



A 13-year-old boy was killed Sunday afternoon in an avalanche at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort at Mount Charleston's Lee Canyon.

The body of the teen was found shortly before 10 p.m. in an effort led by the Metropolitan Police Department. The victim's identity was not immediately available.

Clark County Sheriff Bill Young said about two dozen search and rescue officers and volunteers had been on the mountain looking for the missing boy since about 3 p.m., but his prospects for survival dimmed after they found evidence he had been swept away.

"They found the board and some boots, and they're fairly certain it belongs to a juvenile ... that he was swept off while he was riding the lift," Young said.

Las Vegas police Sgt. Chris Jones said searchers found the victim about 9:45 p.m.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the family," he said.

When the avalanche hit, skiers Bryan Vickery and Frank Bencevengo were riding on the ski lift to the top of The Line, an intermediate level run on the resort.

They first saw a snowboarder racing down the run. Then they heard a booming noise, one so loud that it was impossible to hear each other talking. That was immediately followed by a rush of snow, a fast-moving wall that Vickery and Bencevengo described as anywhere from 10- to 20-feet high.

As the snow sped toward the chairlift, moving from left to right, Vickery turned to Bencevengo and shouted: "Hold on!"

They described watching as the front edge of the white wall tossed a lone skier or snowboarder from his chair, four seats ahead. The unidentified person tried to grasp a bar designed to secure skiers to the lift, but the snow carried him away.

The person cartwheeled to the ground, like a rag doll, his legs splaying in the air. Then, he was gone, buried beneath the snow, said Vickery, who had a camera and snapped images of the scene.

The fast-moving snow hit a ridge in the ground and turned slightly to the right, sparing Vickery and Bencevengo and others around them, before traveling another 200 yards and petering out, they said.

Within a minute, as many as 20 skiers were looking for the missing lift rider, Vickery said. Some jumped from the lift. Others had been skiing downhill. They ripped off their skis, several using their ski poles to dig into the ground for any sign of the missing person. Others used their hands to toss snow aside.

Vickery and Bencevengo watched from their chair, suspended about 30-feet above, as the ski lift had come to a jarring stop. They shouted to skiers behind them: "Avalanche. Send help."

That message was passed down the ski lift from chair to chair.

The two men estimated that it took at least 15 minutes for any ski resort employees to arrive at the scene. Vickery said a lone snowmobile circled the site and left without the driver getting off the vehicle to help the others who were looking for the missing person.

Shortly afterward, the ski lift was restarted, and Vickery and Bencevengo were carried to the top of The Line, from where they skied down.

Vickery, a Las Vegas resident and assistant vice president of marketing for First National Bank of Marin, said he was deeply troubled by the lack of an immediate response from resort workers.

Bencevengo, a salesman for a Burlington, Vt., lawn company echoed those comments. Both men are avid skiers who have frequented resorts throughout the West.

"This was really skiers helping skiers," Bencevengo said. "There was just a sense of urgency on the part of the skiers out there to help one another. The resort really did not grasp the magnitude of the event."

Phone calls to the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort office went unanswered Sunday evening.

The avalanche followed a two-week period that saw an estimated 78 inches of snow fall on the mountain, said Clay Morgan, a forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Las Vegas. The frigid, wet weather has been the result of a steady air flow from the Gulf of Alaska that has run down the California coast before turning east toward Southern Nevada.

Becky Grismanauskas, who has lived on the mountain for about 16 years, described the weather conditions as "the worst or second worst" she has seen since she and her husband, Duffy, moved up there. The two serve on the mountain's volunteer fire department. Both are licensed emergency medical tech- nicians.

She was monitoring the fire department's emergency radio channel, on which she heard a warning against the use of emergency sirens or vehicle horns on the way to Lee Canyon. The fear: the noise could spark another avalanche. Rescue workers were taking hot packs to the scene to help people suffering from hypothermia.

Though conditions at Lee Canyon were dangerously cold, Las Vegas police Lt. Les Lane said he knew of no injuries to searchers. The victim's parents were also at Lee Canyon, authorities said.

Becky Grismanauskas said about 6 p.m. Sunday that rain had fallen steadily since midnight on her home in the mountain's Rainbow neighborhood.

"The rain has just been relentless. It's been coming down in buckets," she said. "In some places, there's two feet of water on the ground."

She estimated that eight to 12 feet of snow had fallen around their three-story home during the past two weeks. Ten-foot icicles hung from the eaves of her roof as the snow melted.

She and her neighbors had temporarily lost phone service and electricity in recent days.

In February, four skiers were caught in an avalanche at the resort. Three were skiing out-of-bounds, and another man was skiing in an area known as Slot Alley, a side trail for experts. All survived.

Review-Journal writers Frank Curreri and J.M. Kalil contributed to this report.