A few minutes before 9:30 a.m. on Friday, March 26, 1976, two gondola cars, each carrying a capacity load of six skiers, plunged 125 feet to the ground at Colorado's Vail ski resort. Three people were killed immediately, two teen-age girls and a housewife. A young man died two days later in a hospital in Denver. The other eight skiers were injured, some severely. It was the worst ski-area accident in U.S. history.
On the cables high above the wrecked gondolas, two more cars smacked together and hung precariously from the line—one held aloft by a single strip of steel one-eighth of an inch thick. At intervals up and down the line, 31 other fiber-glass cars, painted a variety of colors and loaded with skiers, dangled like beads from their cables, some of them 230 feet in the air. One hundred and seventy-six people were stranded.
Here is what happened that Friday in Vail.
No day had ever been more perfect for skiing. Four to eight inches of fresh snow had fallen Thursday night and the morning sky was a deep blue. The temperature was climbing through the 20s. The mountain loomed over Vail, sun-splashed and immaculate, its trails and runs carpeted with feathery snow. The village had been filled with people all week, because this was the spring school break for much of the country, and on Friday morning the town was alive with that special energy that permeates every ski resort when there is new powder snow on the mountain and the sun is on the rise. The ski patrol was up early and on the job.
Last March the ski patrol at Vail consisted of 29 full-time professionals, a proud bunch bonded by an intensity of fraternal esteem and a touch of swagger. Vail was one of the first U.S. ski areas to have a professional ski patrol, and it became known as one of the best. Each member is trained in advanced first aid: they take the same 82-hour course ambulance drivers do. They are qualified to treat cardiac cases, to give intravenous treatments, to give morphine and Demerol injections and to handle any medical emergency. Patrolmen also have to master mountain skills ranging from snowmobile repair to avalanche rescue, from storm search techniques to gondola and chair-lift evacuation. The best-paid patrolmen make $1,200 a month.
On the day before the gondolas fell, the patrol had handled 14 accidents on the mountain: two involved broken legs, one a shoulder fracture, seven were knee injuries and the rest various bruises.
Early Friday morning, while the patrolmen checked in at their stations on the mountain, a long line of skiers formed at the base terminal of Gondola II, one of two gondola lift systems at the resort. Almost all the cars were filled to their capacity of six.
Around 9:10 a.m., Ira Potashner, 41, a vice-president of a market research corporation from New York City, and his friend Arnold Cordts, 46, a market planning and research manager from Rochester, N.Y., boarded a red car. They sat together on one side, facing up the hill. Four young men got into the car with them. They were all friends: John Manley, 19; Steve Meoli, 18; John Coniaris, 20; and Greg Dietrich, 19; all of Wayland, Mass. Each car on the line was numbered, though they didn't run in sequence. This was Car No. 25.
The next car in line, Car No. 67, was loaded with three couples who had met a week earlier. They had decided to ski together on the day of the accident. Next came Gene Reese, 45, an assistant lumberyard manager from Custer, S.D., his wife Darlene, 42, and his sister, Mrs. John Anderson, 37, of Longmont, Colo. The Reeses and Mrs. Anderson got into a yellow car, No. 60, and they were joined by three girls, the Pasterkamp sisters, Janice, 14, and Carol, 18, from Englewood, Colo., and Carol's roommate from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., Karen Togtman, 19, whose home was in Palos Park, III. Along with Richard Pasterkamp, 47, the sisters' father, the girls had driven from the Pasterkamps' condominium in Dillon, 30 miles away across Vail Pass.
While the girls waited in line, Pasterkamp went to buy lift tickets. By the time he returned, the queue waiting to board the gondola had grown even longer. "The attendants asked me not to crack the line," said Pasterkamp, "so I gave the girls their tickets and I went over to take the chair lifts up and meet them at Eagle's Nest [the top terminal for Gondola II] when they got up there." The three girls sat on one side of the gondola, the Reese party on the other.