By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"Digging was terrible," recalls Richard, who is 6'5" and athletic. "It's like shoveling wet concrete." Despite the strong beacon signals, he also couldn't hit anything with his probe. A moment later, the guide from the second group who'd been checking the snow when the avalanche started showed up. He was bloody and seemed disoriented, but the two dug as fast as they could.
Fifteen feet to their left, Heinz had zeroed in on another signal. He planted a ski pole there and moved on. A couple of minutes later, another skier from their group located a third signal, about a dozen yards on the other side of where Richard was still digging. Two skiers began digging there.
Several dozen yards upslope, Barry, Shovelman and a couple others had started walking a grid pattern with their beacons on, listening for sounds. After a few minutes of hearing nothing, and with the activity growing below them, Barry decided to ski downhill to help out there. Recognizing Richard, who was still frantically digging, Barry found a shovel and started to help.
It was at that point that one of the strangest parts of the whole incident occurred. Richard and Barry had been exchanging tools as they searched -- first probing, feeling for a body with the pole and then shoveling. At one point, they'd jammed the probe into the snow to the side of their hole while they both dug. Suddenly, the probe started gyrating wildly, whipping in a circle -- "like an antenna in the wind," Barry says.
"It was going crazy," says Richard. "There was no wind, nobody had hit it." They stared for a second and then, thinking that whoever was buried beneath them had somehow managed to grab it, they started digging frantically, with shovels and hands. But underneath the probe was...nothing. "In my life, I've been able to explain 99 percent of what has happened," says Richard. "That was part of the 1 percent." They'd also wasted time.
After a few minutes, Richard looked up and over to his left and noticed that one person had been pulled out of the snow. It was Kenny. Two of the English guys were already performing CPR on him. Richard ran over. "This is my friend," he yelled. "Let me help."
He started breathing into Kenny's mouth. "I was screaming at him, 'Come on, Kenny! Come on! Do something!' I kept shaking him," Richard recalls. After what seemed to take forever, some others came over, strapped Kenny to a backboard and carried him to a waiting helicopter. According to a timeline later constructed by investigators, Kenny had been buried for twelve minutes. Despite statistical reason for hope, "I knew it was bad," Richard says.
A few minutes later, Barry heard someone yell, "We found a hand!" Abandoning his digging at the first hole, he rushed over. When he saw the flash of clothing, he knew immediately who it was under the snow. "When I realized it was Mike, I pushed the guide away and turned into a snowblower," he says.
At that point, he was certain he was on a recovery mission. "I knew for a fact that Mike was dead," he explains. "I'd seen Kenny getting CPR out of my peripheral vision, and Mike had been buried much longer. So I knew that my best friend was dead, too. But you keep digging, because it's your job."
By the time Mike's head was uncovered, nearly 35 minutes had passed. He was unconscious. Barry reached down under his chin and felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was weak.
Mike had been buried under six feet of snow. He heard nothing. "Everything had happened very quickly, but when I was buried, things slowed down to a crawl," he says. He concentrated on keeping his breathing even. At first, he was confident. He'd been skiing in a group; surely someone would find him soon.
After some time passed, though, he began to wonder. His listening for sounds grew so concentrated that he began to imagine them. He began to consider the possibility that the others all had been buried, too. Maybe, he thought, this will take longer than I anticipated.
Finally, he knew that he was alone. "I thought, 'They're not coming,'" he recalls. "This is the last thing I'll ever do."
He also remembers getting angry. "Right before the trip," he says, "I'd had several setbacks, and a half-dozen people had told me I shouldn't come on the trip. First, I blew out my back; I was laid up in bed for a few days. Then I got the flu. Then, the night before I left, I got an infected root canal. My face was all swollen up. The day before I left, I started mega-dosing on penicillin and Percosets.
"My girlfriend said, 'Don't you think this is a sign?' I told her, 'Nah.' Then my secretary said, 'It's a sign -- don't go.' So I'm buried in an avalanche and I'm thinking, 'What the fuck does it take for me to get a clue?'