Body carefully retrieved; 911 caller describes ice-cave collapse

  • By Rikki King, Eric Stevick and Noah Haglund Herald Writers
  • Wednesday, July 8, 2015 12:25am
  • Local NewsLocal news

VERLOT — Theirs was a fragile duty.

They needed to bring out the dead without risking another life.

For 23 hours, the body remained on the frozen floor at the foot of the Big Four Ice Caves in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

They consulted experts, including a glaciologist and avalanche technician.

They weighed many options and ultimately decided that explosives were the best tool to reach the 34-year-old woman who died when the caves collapsed early Monday evening.

As they drew up their plans, they could hear the crashing of rocks and ice deep within the rapidly melting caves.

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the blasting was done and they could finally reach her, lifting her body out by helicopter.

Search and rescue crews estimated the woman was about 50 yards within the cave. When others escaped, she was motionless.

A witness to Monday’s fatal collapse relayed to 911 dispatchers a grim, detailed description of the injured and expressed little hope for the woman trapped inside.

In a calm voice, the young woman can be heard on a dispatch center recording saying: “There was an avalanche down at the Ice Caves. … There was a compound fracture and there was an amputated leg practically. … There was a lady unconscious in the ice caves that nobody ended up bringing out when we left.”

The woman’s body was taken to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office, which will confirm her identity.

Five survivors were rushed to hospitals after the 5 p.m. collapse. Two of them remained at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Tuesday. They were a 25-year-old man in serious condition in the intensive care unit and a 35-year-old man in satisfactory condition.

By Tuesday morning, the others had been treated and released from hospitals. They included a 35-year-old woman taken to Harborview, and a 14-year-old girl and another girl of undisclosed age treated at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

Multiple groups of hikers were on the trail that evening. Whether the people caught in the collapse knew each other is unclear.

“All we know is they were all in the cave at the same time,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

One of two 911 calls was made by the young woman who rushed with friends to the first pay phone they saw, she told The Daily Herald on Tuesday. She asked that her name not be made public.

The woman said she learned how to recognize the injuries she saw thanks to a high school sports medicine class. She was standing at the edge of the ice field at the time of the collapse and backed away as she heard it.

“There was just a loud rupture and previous to the collapse you heard the ice breaking and melting and you could see it melting, and before it collapsed you could hear it break off and then a shower of extreme rain,” she said Tuesday.

“There were a lot of screams,” she said. “People were in pain and the kids were scared.”

A man at the caves had a first-aid kit. Other hikers tied off an injured man’s nearly amputated leg. The partial amputation appeared to have involved an artery but, the woman said, she couldn’t tell for sure. Two other men had cuts to their heads. Another woman was bleeding from her head. Multiple children had cuts and other wounds.

With recent temperatures hitting 90, the caves will continue to weaken and fall. The temperature in Verlot on Monday reached 87 degrees, and this year’s heatwave and low snowpack have broken records.

Crevasses have been forming in recent weeks, and forest rangers at the nearest ranger station have been warning people of unsafe conditions, the Forest Service said.

The Mountain Loop Highway is open, but the ice caves are closed until further notice.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Snohawk10, a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, touched down in the picnic area at the base of the 6,315-foot Big Four mountain carrying rescue equipment, medical supplies and personnel.

The rescue team included at least four county search and rescue technicians, a sheriff’s sergeant and four-member helicopter rescue crew, and a glaciologist, officials said.

Crews have trained for a rescue at the caves twice in recent months. Two dozen emergency personnel gathered June 25 specifically to plan for rescues there.

“It was just a general, ongoing concern,” said Mark Murphy of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management. “We take a look at things seasonally.”

Similar to looking ahead to floods or high winds in the fall, they took stock of the hot, dry spell that has been hitting the area.

“We’re not even in mid-July, and everything is almost like in September, or almost like late August,” Murphy said. The sheriff’s office and Forest Service warned hikers in May to steer clear of the already collapsing caves.

The gathering to plan rescues included fire chiefs, emergency communications officials and search and rescue leaders. They identified experts in navigating snow fields and others with technical knowledge.

Murphy is convinced it made a difference.

“Without a doubt,” he said.

Crews were able to shave time by planning in advance to ferry firefighters, paramedics and search and rescue teams from the parking lot to the caves by helicopter. That was faster than having them hike with heavy gear a mile to the scene. Ground crews helped prepare the victims for the hoist operation.

It’s possible to land a helicopter near the caves, as happened Monday, but it carries risk.

“If you bring a helicopter in, downdraft and vibrations could cause further collapse. They have to be careful,” Murphy said.

Reaching victims is perilous.

“In any type of collapse, you want to try to shore up the roof so you can prevent further collapse. It’s not something you can do with the ice caves,” Murphy said. “It’s a very dynamic environment — it’s constantly changing, constantly moving.”

The ice caves at the end of a popular short, flat trail are about 12 miles from the Verlot ranger station. At least two other deaths have occurred there since the 1990s.

With its beautiful scenery and the temptation of an icy breeze on a hot summer’s day, the ice caves have been attracting visitors since the 1920s.

History shows that keeping people out of the caves is a major challenge.

Hikers have been determined to reach the area, even when floods wash out bridges and avalanches down trees, said Adrienne Hall, manager of the Verlot ranger station. They’ve waded through water and crawled over logs.

The main bridge to the caves over the South Fork Stillaguamish River washed out most recently in 2006. It was replaced in 2009.

As work to replace the bridge was ongoing, as many as 125 people a day walked around signs warning that the trail was closed, Forest Service officials reported.

The Forest Service also has two field rangers assigned to the Big Four area in the spring and summer, but they can’t be there around the clock. By the time the caves collapsed Monday, they probably would have been finished for the day, officials have said.

“From the logistics and capacity standpoint, we just don’t have the personnel to keep people from getting in there,” Hall said. “It would have to be 24/7.”

Multiple signs warn people of the danger. Recently, a 700-pound boulder at the site was sandblasted with safety messages. And there also is a memorial warning marker from the family of Grace Tam. The 11-year-old Marysville girl was killed in 2010 by a chunk of ice that bounced to where she was standing, 20 feet from the mouth of the caves.

The ice was even more fragile Tuesday than it was the night before, said Travis Hots, the fire chief for Getchell and rural Arlington who volunteers in search and rescue. Hots responded to the 2010 fatal collapse as well as Monday’s tragedy.

“The ice has come down in big sections and big chunks,” he said. “While crews were up there (Monday), they could hear other collapses. They could hear ice falling down in the back of the cave.”?A detailed communications plan was set up long ago for operations in the remote area, said Hots, who attended the training days before the collapse.

Some search and rescue crews have special radios for use in the backcountry, but most handheld emergency radios don’t work or they provide spotty service. Incident commanders are posted in their rigs, which have better radio reach.

They also had a plan in place for the airlift helicopters. The landing zone at the picnic area has room for only two helicopters.

One airlift helicopter would land while another hovered for the next victim.

“Several people were transferred right to an Airlift Northwest helicopter. As soon as that airlift helicopter would depart, we had another airlift helicopter in the area that would land,” and there were ambulances waiting, as well, Hots said.

A lack of radio coordination with Airlift Northwest helicopters hampered that agency’s response during the Oso mudslide in March 2014 and during the Marysville Pilchuck High School shootings last October.

Airlift Northwest participated in the training exercise June 25, in which police, firefighters and Snohomish County officials laid out maps of the ice caves and discussed search and rescue strategy.

“It’s something we plan for, and we executed that plan,” Hots said.

The closest cellphone service is near the fish ladder about two miles east of Granite Falls. The nearest landline phone is roughly 12 miles from the ice caves trailhead.

Steve Blum-Anderson of Bellingham had been camping in the area when he stopped by the Verlot ranger station Tuesday morning. He’s been to the ice caves in the past and wishes others would heed the warnings.

“I have always stayed way back because I know what could happen,” he said. “I’m just a big chicken.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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