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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Nelson climbed onto the roof of the car, opened the hatch and had the six occupants throw to the ground an evacuation string that was stowed under a seat. A patrolman on the ground tied a length of line and a small diaperlike harness to the string, and the occupants of the car pulled this up to the gondola. Then they handed the evacuation line to Nelson on top of the car, who attached it to the cable with carabiners. One end of the line was dropped to the ground again and the evacuation seat was attached to the other end. One at a time, the passengers climbed into the seat and, with two patrolmen on the ground belaying the rope, were lowered slowly to safety below. It took about 15 minutes to evacuate Car 67. When the last pale and shaken occupant was assisted out of the evacuation seat, a smattering of weak but happy applause could be heard from the passengers in the four or five cars hanging nearby.

Now evacuation teams of patrolmen went to work in earnest up and down the line of Gondola II. Chupa Nelson stayed aloft to tackle the car next to No. 67. Five other patrolmen shouldered their gear and climbed other towers, glided down cables on their bikes, and began the long and exhausting process of bringing down 170 more anxious prisoners from 30 gondola cars.

There were no cases of hysteria, no stories of people refusing to go, nor were there any injuries. One skier calmly told Chupa Nelson. "I am terrified. I can't make myself drop over the edge of the car. Please, when you think I'm ready, just give me a slight shove. I know I'll be all right, but I need some help getting out." "They were hungry as hell and there were a lot of them with wet pants." John Murphy said.

Some skiers were trapped in their cars for more than six hours. But the last man was evacuated at 4:15 p.m., long before darkness fell.

The only near-crisis came when a press helicopter hovered just above the cables, its blast of downwash causing the gondola cars to sway. After frantic attempts by the rescue teams to wave it away and to contact it by radio, the chopper finally flew off.

As the passengers reached the ground, ski instructors served them food and drink. After their skis were lowered, the evacuees were given a choice of skiing down or riding down in cats. Ninety percent chose to ski to the bottom.

An hour or so after the last skier was rescued, a lone patrolman started down from Eagle's Nest. He carried a bullhorn. The sun was beginning to set and the mountain was empty of skiers. He skied to a point beneath the first dangling car and shouted up through the bullhorn, asking if there was anyone left inside. There was no answer. This eerie act was repeated again and again all the way down the mountain. There was no answer from any car. By the time the patrolman had reached the bottom of Gondola II, it was almost dark. The day was over.

In the aftermath of the accident, a number of things happened. The next morning Gary Wall, the young police chief of Vail, went to the mountain and spent most of the day investigating the possibility of sabotage on the cable. "I hung out over the tower looking for something—anything—a cold chisel mark, any evidence at all that something criminal had taken place. There was nothing." Vail Associates hired consulting 'firms to examine the cable and find what caused it to fray. The State of Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which has jurisdiction over all ski lifts in Colorado, had an engineer do the same thing. The Tramway Board engineer and the investigators hired by Vail arrived at the same conclusion three months later: the sheathing strands on the cable had probably been weakened by stresses that were a result of a design flaw in the original placement of the towers on Gondola II. To correct this flaw, Vail Associates eventually spent $2 million on Gondola II. Since the same flaw was said to be present in Gondola I, the company decided to remove that gondola and install new, faster chair lifts at a cost of $1 million. Testing on Gondola II began on Nov. 22 and it is scheduled to open in mid-December. Two new chair lifts have replaced Gondola I.

Steve Meoli of Wayland, Mass. died suddenly and unexpectedly two days after he had been transferred to St. Anthony's Hospital. The cause of death was the rupture of the major blood vessel leading from his heart. He had been cheerful, even answering questions for newspapermen, immediately after the accident. The following day he complained he had no feeling in his right leg, then in both legs. A huge bruise began forming on his chest. He went into surgery. He died early on Sunday morning.

Carol Pasterkamp, who had nearly lost her right arm and suffered a monumental concussion, has begun to learn to write with her right hand again. For several months after the accident, she could remember nothing that had occurred to her for two days before the car fell and nothing for two weeks afterward. Her minister, her father and her mother told her repeatedly that her sister Janice had died, but she did not entirely grasp the gravity of the information until one day in the middle of June when she began to weep. Other victims have had recurrences of pain from their injuries. But none was paralyzed, which is amazing considering the large number of spinal injuries, the kind of terrain and the distance each victim had to be carried over before reaching fully equipped hospital facilities at the bottom of the mountain.

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