SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
December 13, 1976
Gliding jauntily above the fresh snow at Vail, the brightly colored cars packed with skiers began their ascent to the top of the Colorado resort. Then came the rumble of disaster
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December 13, 1976

The Tragedy On Gondola Ii

Gliding jauntily above the fresh snow at Vail, the brightly colored cars packed with skiers began their ascent to the top of the Colorado resort. Then came the rumble of disaster

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"He returned in a few minutes and asked me to go over to the clinic. It still never dawned on me that my kids could be involved. I thought, well, sure it's possible to have one person unidentified but never three. There were all these people outside the clinic. The door was locked, but I knocked. A man named Tubbs took me to his office and gave me a list of the clothes Carol had been wearing. Well, it still didn't register because part of her outfit belonged to her aunt. I called my wife in Dillon and asked her what the girls had been wearing. She told me, but I kept trying to throw her off balance, to make sure there was no mistake. There wasn't any, and I hung up and said the clothes belonged to my daughter Carol. It was then they told me that they had this party badly hurt down at St. Anthony's.

"That registered. But as soon as I got that, the coroner walked in. He showed me two Polaroid pictures. They were of Janice and Karen. Then he asked me what the patch on my shoulder stood for. It was a special patch, a wooden shoe and some skis. Ten years ago a bunch of us, 10 couples all of Dutch ancestry, had it made up when we skied together. The coroner said one of the dead girls had a patch like that on her parka.

"He asked me if I wanted to make positive identification of the bodies. I said no. I said that if my wife called back to tell her I'd already left and not to mention anything about the kids. The coroner called Karen's sister-in-law in Denver and I took off for Dillon."

Coroner Carlisle and Clinic Administrator Tubbs spoke to a state trooper after Dick Pasterkamp left. They asked him to trail the bereaved father the 30 miles back across Vail Pass to Dillon. "He had taken such blows," said Tubbs, "we just wanted to be sure he didn't do something to him-self." There was no reason to worry: Dick Pasterkamp, a tall, burly blond man, slow-talking and calm, a devout member of the Christian Reformed Church, was as solid as Vail Mountain itself that day and remained in control through Janice's funeral and Carol's pain-racked recovery. By 3 p.m., the work with the injured and the dead at the clinic had come to an end.

On the mountain, the ski patrol was still laboring to bring down the 176 people trapped in the 31 cars that hung high above the ground. When Patrol Director Paul Testwuide arrived at the scene of the accident, he looked at the line of cars hanging up and down the mountain for the full 9,274-foot length of the gondola. Contemplating their evacuation, he told a patrolman, "We're going to be working in the dark."

The Vail patrol has drilled for years on evacuating the gondolas. They had never had to do it, but every patrolman had to be able to perform such a rescue. To evacuate a gondola a patrolman has to climb a 135-foot tower, carrying an evacuation "bike" on his back. This is a small steel contraption with rolling wheels that lock on to the track cable. The rider stands on foot pieces, hangs below the cable and glides along it to a disabled car. Attached to a safety sling, he then climbs onto the slanting roof of the car with slippery ski boots, leans over and tells the trapped occupants what to do. It is a high-wire performance as daring as a trapeze act. But the ski patrolmen of Vail like to ride the bikes for fun and exhibition. On St. Patrick's Day, nine days before the accident, they had performed a series of spine-chilling training races down the cables of Vail's Gondola I for crowds of skiers, riding their bikes like madmen and reaching speeds of up to 40 mph—all at heights of 50 to 70 feet.

Now at the base of Tower 5, Patrolman Richard (Chupa) Nelson looped a length of rope and a length of chain around his neck and strapped an evacuation bike to his back. It was roughly 10:30 a.m. Inside Car No. 67 were Dr. and Mrs. Richard Cooper of Woodbridge, Conn., the Stephen Beckermans of Livingston, N.J. and the Allen Comptons of Lithia Springs, Ga. They had been sitting there for more than an hour. They knew exactly how slender was the strip of steel that kept them from plummeting to the snow, for Beckerman had stuck his head out a window and looked at it. "We hung there cockeyed," Steve Beckerman recalled. "If the wind had blown or we had moved one foot either way, we would have fallen." The six passengers could hear the moans from the injured below. They could hear the conversations of ski patrolmen working on the injured, hearing them telling each other that they would have to move the victims aside in case any of the cars above fell. The three couples sat perfectly still—and perfectly silent for a time. "We were even afraid to talk, as though our voices might shake the car," said Mrs. Beckerman. "We all braced ourselves," said Mrs. Cooper, "because we knew our car was going to drop. We knew we were going to go down."

John Murphy, 29, assistant ski patrol director, climbed Tower 5 to see what could be done with Car 67. The tower is 126 feet high and the rungs are small round steel rods. Ski patrolmen climb it wearing heavy rigid ski boots, approximately the equivalent of having a large hard plaster cast on each foot and ankle. Murphy was asked how it was possible to clamber about on slippery cold steel so confidently in such footwear. "It's nothing," he said. "Your toes just seem to grow and grow until they're out there gripping the rungs right through your ski boots."

Murphy realized the car had to be stabilized by binding it to the cable. He climbed down and talked to Chupa Nelson. They agreed that Chupa would pass his rope, then his chain through the windows of the car and make them fast on the cable. Murphy and Nelson climbed the tower. They inched out on the girders closest to the car. Then Nelson attached his bicycle to the cables and rolled down the 40 feet toward the car, 125 feet above the ground, playing out the rope that was attached to the tower. He did not dare climb onto the roof for fear his weight would send the car down, so he hung from the bike.

"I saw that the people inside were really nervous, but they were calm," said Nelson. "I spoke to them matter-of-factly and I said, 'O.K., I'm going to do some things and we need your help. I'll explain to you what's going to happen, and if you have any questions when I'm finished, ask me.' " He explained that the rope (which tested at 5,000 pounds) would be passed through the car, out one window and back in another, and would have to be tied around the center pole in the car. "Can any of you tie a secure knot—a bowline?" asked Nelson. None of the six was sure he could, so Nelson said, "Just tie the knot into itself, O.K.?" He recalled, "There was a bearded guy who said he knew how to do that. So we got the rope through there O.K. and secured it to the cable. The rope was strong enough to hold the car, but we didn't know whether it might be cut. So we also snaked the chain down the cable, wrapped it through the car a couple of times and snatch-hooked it. It was cumbersome, but now they were perfectly secure."

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