Rescuers who tried to save two ski patrollers who fell into a crevasse formed by a volcanic vent at Mammoth Mountain said Saturday that they found themselves confronted with a danger they did not expect.
"We had worked around this thing for years, and I think our initial response didn't take into account that it was a toxic environment," said ski patroller Steve McCabe. "We were looking at this as a traumatic injury from a fall."
For as long as Mammoth Mountain ski patrollers can remember, the vent, or fumarole, on the Christmas Bowl ski run has been a quirk of the landscape, its poisonous fumes dissipating harmlessly into the air. But trapped by record snowfall, the fumes had concentrated to a lethal level.
In an interview at ski patrol headquarters at the main lodge, McCabe and ski patroller John McGrath offered the first eyewitness accounts of Thursday's attempts to rescue their two ski patrol colleagues and a third who succumbed when he tried to reach the pair.
The rescue scene, McCabe said, was "controlled chaos" as the patrollers realized that toxic carbon dioxide was the real problem. "You are trained to keep your eye on the big picture," he said, "but when it's your friends you see dying, your emotions take control," he said.
The investigation into the deadly accident continued Saturday as a state workplace safety investigator arrived to learn more about what killed the men. The inspector declined to discuss the probe.
Mammoth Mountain officials said they were conducting their own investigation and expected additional investigations by their insurance company and the U.S. Forest Service.
The ski patrol deaths were the first at Mammoth since the early 1970s, when an employee was killed after an artillery gun used for avalanche control malfunctioned.
Also Saturday, Jeff Bridges, a ski patroller who was overcome by fumes as he tried to reach the three fallen patrollers, was released from Mammoth Lakes Hospital. In a telephone interview, he said he still suffered from pain in his chest, mostly from the pressure of the rope that was tied around his midsection to hoist him out of the crevasse.
"I've lost three of my buddies," Bridges said. "Three of them died, and I'm the one who survived. They weren't just co-workers, they were my friends."
McCabe and McGrath agreed to be interviewed on Saturday, saying they wanted people to understand the tragedy and repeatedly emphasizing that the rescue effort involved many of their colleagues on the ski patrol.
They said Thursday began like any other day for the patrollers.
"It was a typical day of avalanche patrol to get the mountain open," McCabe said. "Once we take care of the avalanche hazards, we dig out the rope closures, tower pads and signage."
As a group of patrollers worked to dig out the buried fence around the Christmas Bowl fumarole, McCabe was near the summit of Mammoth Mountain and McGrath was at the top of chairlift No. 5.
When the snow around the vent collapsed, James Juarez and John "Scott" McAndrews fell about 20 feet to the bottom of the chute.
Hearing about the accident on their hand-held radios, McCabe and McGrath said, they skied as quickly as they could to the scene, arriving in minutes.
McGrath, a 28-year ski patrol veteran at Mammoth, and another patroller, Charles Walter Rosenthal, who had joined the Mammoth patrol in 1972, went to the cusp of the hole.
"When I got there, only two guys were in the cavern," McGrath said. "I kept my skis on, and I was sitting on the snow with Walter and Jeff Bridges, and we were trying to solve the problem of access and extraction. We didn't know if the fall had caused the injury."
McGrath said he was surprised to see the snow dome that had formed around the vent, saying it "boggled the mind." Record snowfall had trapped the gases inside, and the heat melted a cavern beneath the snow.
"This thing has been here forever," McCabe said. "It's normally harmless because it vents to the atmosphere and the gases dissipate. What happened was because of the intense snowfall and the snow depth."
The snow turned the small fumarole from a benign presence into a killer.
Rosenthal entered the cavern to try to save his colleagues, McGrath said, but "the gas took him to his knees and then down."
Then Bridges entered and also collapsed. McGrath and McCabe said they were still trying to piece together the exact sequence of events.
Soon, they recalled, rescuers dug into the cavern from the downhill side. About 20 took turns shoveling. They could smell the gas, and those nearest the vent rotated to the back after 15 to 30 seconds.
At one point, a fifth patroller, Bren Townsend, entered the hole to try to get Bridges and had to retreat.
McCabe then tried. "I hyperventilated outside the hole," he said, preparing to hold his breath, "and then jumped in and hooked to the rope."
He grabbed Bridges and pulled him to safety.
McCabe, Townsend and Mammoth Lakes firefighter Billy Anderson went in and got Juarez, McAndrews and Rosenthal, who died within the hour.
McCabe and McGrath were hospitalized and released Friday. They both returned to Mammoth Mountain that afternoon.
"We're a family. I went back out skiing yesterday. We skied. That's because that's what we do," McGrath said.
"It doesn't make me want to change what I want to do with my life," McCabe said. "It reaffirmed it."
At Mammoth on Saturday, the ski season that will stretch until July 4 continued. The ski patrol was skiing every inch of the mountain and hauled at least one injured skier to the lodge for treatment.
On the ski resort's website, Chief Executive Rusty Gregory announced that the mountain had started three memorial funds. "You will be learning of selfless heroics born out of the iron bond between our men and women patrollers," he wrote. "This tragedy is beyond words, but the solidarity of our ski patrol has been inspiring, and the support of our community, of which you are all a part, has eased our pain."
In the lobby of the main lodge, Kathleen Miller of Pacific Palisades and her two school-age children, Grady and Molly, had laid out two large journals and colored felt pens on a table, so skiers and employees could write notes of thanks to the fallen patrollers.
One of the messages was this: "You guys are all heroes in my book. Taken too soon by a freak accident doing what you love most. Keep riding in the sky."