Brad Johnson: Remembering the Teller Lift disaster
It was a gorgeous mid-December Saturday when a group of Houston orthopedic surgeons sat down for a quick ski lunch on top of Keystone Mountain.
Dr. Wendell Erwin clearly remembers the double cheeseburger and Dr. David Lionberger’s sweet tooth was anticipating a chocolate eclair.
Suddenly, a ski patroller frantically called out: “Are there doctors in here?”
“That’s always a startling question,” Erwin said last week from his home in Houston. “We identified ourselves and the ski patrolman said ‘we’ve had a serious accident. Get your skis and get on the snowmobile.’ “
Just down the hill, Dr. James Bocell had settled into his chair on the new Teller Lift anticipating a ride to the top to join his friends. The “bull wheel” around which the giant ski cable was wound suddenly fell off, and a deadly whiplash shot down the chairlift like a tidal wave hitting a beach.
The jam-packed triple chairs dropped several feet before rocketing upward like a sling shot flinging 60 people up to 40 feet into the air before they crashed to the ground. In seconds, the ski slope was littered with people with broken legs, backs, crushed chests and many other injuries.
What ensued is fading into history, except in the memories of those of us who were there. I was editor of the Summit Sentinel, the forerunner of the Summit Daily News. I was spending the morning with my eventual wife when our advertising manager called to say: “I’m not sure what’s going on, but they are calling every piece of emergency equipment in the county to Keystone.”
Within minutes, I was on scene of what would be a chaotic two hours. Soon our entire staff was mobilized to record the worst accident ever to hit Summit County.
At the time, one of many stories I wrote was about a group of Houston doctors who were there for a ski injury conference – and who helped save the day. I decided to track a few of them down last week.
Dr. Bocell was the last person to ever get on the Teller Lift. He was about 15 feet off the ground when he felt a big jerk. “I was looking at this big oscillating wave coming down. My mouth was agape.” He and his two seat mates felt the drop and then shot up about 30 feet but managed to hang on. He jumped off the chair before the last of three shock waves hit. “I had never seen anything like it, watching all those people get catapulted.”
The impact on top was very violent and in the first 200 yards 49 people were seriously injured. Erwin, Lionberger and Dr. Robert Fain and Dr. Jay Oats, who all were in the cafeteria at the top, began triage within minutes.
Erwin, a spinal specialist, hopped on the back of a snowmobile and coincidentally was dropped off next to a man with a broken back. He’s often thought about the incredible odds of that occurring. “I do think God in mysterious ways does affect our lives,” he said.
He also remembered that the serious injuries stopped right before the lift went over heavily forested areas. “If people would have been thrown out into that tree terrain, it would have been really disastrous,” he said.
Lionberger started at the top. One of his patients “had gotten spun 360 degrees and accelerated in the air before he came down.”
As Erwin first glanced at the scene “I wondered what the extent of it was. There were still people dangling from the chairs and many stranded. I hoped there was help on the way beyond us.” Lionberger had “a sinking feeling” and also wondered “what are we going to do here. You just reach down into your gut and handle it.” It was a common thought. Twenty five years ago I quoted Keystone Medical Director Dr. Jim Oberheide wondering: “Where is this going to end.”
Five helicopters would arrive from throughout Colorado as well as numerous ground ambulances. Scores of medical personnel and others treated people in the snow and inside a small mountain medical clinic. The base of Keystone Mountain was covered with people lying in rescue toboggans surrounded by ski patrollers and volunteer medical workers because there was no room inside the clinic.
Lionberger remembered how quickly volunteers with medical backgrounds appeared out of nowhere to help. “It was just a sort of coming together of a number of highly trained specialties,” Lionberger said. “Everyone had their adrenaline flowing.”
And it underscored why communities spend time developing and practicing disaster drills.
“I came away impressed with the work that someone had done developing a disaster plan,” Erwin said. “It was extraordinarily well run.”
Lionberger said the accident was an unforgettable shock to everyone.
“Skiing is a sport that is all grins, family relaxation and a festive joyous time to come together,” he said. “That wasn’t the time of joy any physician or anyone would expect. It was a major cloud over the day.”
Brad Johnson was a reporter and editor at the Summit Sentinel from 1981 to 1986. He now operates a real estate appraisal firm in Watertown, SD.
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