By the winter of 1978, Alexander Cushing had built Squaw Valley into one of the greatest ski areas in the world. Home of the 1960 Winter Olympics, 23 lifts serviced more than 2,000 acres of terrain with some of the tamest and some of the toughest runs on earth.
Up to 14,000 people invaded this world-class mountain on weekends, filling slopes to capacity.
In 1969, with General Manager Hans Burkhardt supervising its construction, Squaw Valley ushered in a new era of lift design with its aerial cable car. Trumpeted as the world’s largest mode of uphill transportation, the project took three years to complete at a then staggering cost of $5.5 million. The two-car tram system was capable of transporting 120 people in each car.
When storms whip the Sierra Nevada they can throw a strong wind down from the mountain peaks through Shirley Canyon into Squaw Valley. Old timers call this western wind the ‘Shirley Zephyr.’
On April 15, 1978, the Shirley Zephyr was more than a stiff breeze. Its gale-force winds aided in causing one of the ski industry’s most historic lift accidents.
Squaw Valley had suffered numerous aberrations in its history before the winter of 1977/78. In Squaw’s first five years of operation, avalanches ripped out lift towers three times. The lodge was cut off four times by bridge washouts, flooded twice and eventually burned to the ground in 1956.
Squaw Valley had survived a corporate takeover in 1949, seasons of drought, intense years of snowfall, especially in 1952 and 1969, and several minor lift accidents since the 1960 Olympics.
But nothing would compare to the aerial cable car tragedy on April 15, 1978, at about 3:45 p.m. when a freak accident in blizzard conditions would send a cable slicing through the upper cable car like a can opener, killing four, injuring 31 and shocking the ski industry.
Nor would anything come close to the ensuing intense and courageous rescue. If the tram accident could be eventually declared ‘An act of God,’ the resulting rescue could be described as a miracle. The heroism, sacrifice and determination of 300 volunteers saved the desperate plight of stranded survivors.
On that fateful April day, in a quick moving spring storm with gusting southwest winds, a track cable came off its saddle on Tower 2 of Squaw Valley’s aerial cable car.
The results were devastating. The south descending red colored cable car made way at 11 miles per hour from its top terminal at High Camp. Containing 44 guests, the lift had traveled close to 200 feet when its cabin began twisting. To this day it is not known exactly what happened, except that something caused the car to derail from the outside cable of its two track cables, suddenly doubling the inside cabin’s load. It then lurched, dropping suddenly 75 feet straight down before hitting the end of the inside cable’s bitter end and yo-yoed back up. At that same moment, relieved of its load, one of the two tracking cables jumped loose of its carriage.
Free for just a moment, the cabin, weighing nine tons, smashed into the loose cable. The force sheared through the roof and one wall of the car, tearing off part of the door. And then the burst open car came to a screeching halt 80 feet above the ground.
The tremendous weight of the cable pinned 12 people to the floor. Three were killed instantly.
The remaining passengers were bounced around like rag dolls. One passenger, David Penning was tossed to the ground below. Miraculously, he survived with only a broken rib. In the cabin, however, people suffered multiple fractures, contusions and intense shock.
The uphill traveling green cabin, was on its way at the same time to High Camp (the lift runs off a mono cable so as one goes up the other car descends) for the final run of the day. It completely jammed to a stop about 800 feet up slope from the bottom terminal bunker. It hung in the air below the Tower One cliffs with 64 passengers.
Upper lift maintenance supervisor Jim King (now Squaw’s Mountain Manager) was the first on the scene. King radioed dispatch and described the scene. Patrolmen Dennis Dodds and Chris Phillips quickly joined him in hip-deep snow.
A Hollywood scriptwriter could not have written a more dramatic crisis. Darkness was falling and the storm had socked the surrounding mountains. The suspended cabin swung above the ground in the most remote section of the mountain under a knifelike ridge that separated Shirley Canyon and expert ski terrain called Broken Arrow. It would be impossible to send in snowcats or snowmobiles to that section of the mountain. Snowfall was estimated to be falling at two inches per hour.
But help was on the way. In fact, one of the largest rescue efforts in the area’s history was set in motion. Teams of medical technicians and volunteers from eight fire departments flooded into the valley. Search and rescue team members set out on cross country skis and headed up the canyon. As night fell, command posts and makeshift hospitals were set in the base lodge’s Olympic House, and the mid mountain day lodges Gold Coast and High Camp.
Squaw Valley Lodge employees stripped blankets off beds and sent them to rescuers. Even Lucky’s Supermarket in Tahoe City grabbed all their winter boots from shelves to help volunteers and victims alike. Mountain food employees stayed on duty far into the night preparing food for the army of rescuers.
A trail from Gold Coast was broken over inhospitable, stark, steep and slippery ridges by sheriff deputies and ski patrol and then lined with flares. A huge bonfire was built at the accident scene.
Patroller Chris Phillips was lifted into the destroyed cable car cabin, then patrol director Jim Mott. Other good Samaritans began arriving such as famed mountaineers Jim Bridwell and Rick Sylvester. U.S. Ski Team coach (now Squaw Valley General Manager) Ernst Hager helped move the injured from beneath the cable car to the ridge. A human chain of volunteers hooked into fixed lines along the 400-foot long trail to High Camp. Dr. Denny Chez set up a field hospital at Gold Coast where he and staff stabilized the injured for the ride down the gondola. Squaw’s Director of Skiing Hans Standteiner brought his ski school instructors onto the scene. Ski instructor Jean Fritsch carried rescued passenger Patty Penning up the icy cliff to safety at High Camp. Another ski school instructor Ken Spencer, 22, was carrying Gina Wisniewski when she died in his arms from her injuries.
Over 300 volunteers took part in the rescue that lasted more than ten hours in blizzard conditions (at 9:30 p.m. winds were clocked at 60 mph). The last body was removed from the smashed cable car at 1:15 am. The final person out of the car was lead rescuer Jim Mott. Meanwhile Hugh Bryce was the last person self-rescued out of the dangling green cable car. By the time he rappelled 800 feet to the ground it was 2:30 a.m.
The following are excerpts from interviews with six people who played heroic parts of the rescue.
It was Gutowsky’s first full season working at Squaw Valley. The year before, the 25-year old Marin County native had left the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dan enjoyed mountain life. That summer he worked as a tram operator training in evacuation, maintenance and overall operations. In the fall he was transferred over to lift maintenance for the winter season. By late spring he’d been laid off only to be offered a job by gondola and tram supervisor Juerg Ludwig. Dan found himself assigned to running the gondola.
After only a week of operating the gondola Dan was transferred to the cable car on the second Saturday of April: one of its tram operators had injured his knee the day before. The assignment would only be for the day. The cable car was closing for the season after April 15.
‘I still feel I was fated to be on that tram that day,’ reflected Dan. ‘I was put there to help. I was the most qualified to be there.
‘I’d operated the tram all day and it hadn’t been that bad. On our last run, however, while descending, it started swinging pretty good from the wind. We were soon nearing Tower Two. I’d been trained specifically to know that when approaching a tower or terminal, and swinging more than five degrees, to slow the car down, even stop it, until swinging subsided, so you wouldn’t bang into anything. That’s exactly what I did.
‘Instantaneously, while pushing the button, a huge gust hit us, and lifted the car, twisting it at the same time.
‘What saved most of the people was the carriage. The cable came off the tower and hit the carriage on top. The collision knocked everyone to the floor. It all happened within a snap of your fingers. I can still hear the noise, like a big explosion, and then it was over.
‘The door where I was standing had blown out and the side of the car curled encompassing me like a coffin. It protected me. The only injury I received was bump on the head from the evacuation ladder to the roof.
‘It was a mess with skis, debris and people everywhere. I looked where the cable had stopped. It had a lot of people trapped underneath. It was solidly jammed and I knew at least the car wasn’t going to fall anywhere. The first thing I remember yelling was, ‘The worst is over! Help will be on the way!’’
Dale Cox can’t help but remember the Squaw Valley tram accident. Not only was he a victim, but the accident happened the day before his 31st birthday. Dale had been at High Camp not to ski but to party with his friends.
Dale had moved to Squaw Valley in 1975 from Flint, Michigan. A large strong man with a great sense of humor, he’d already established a successful plumbing business in the community.
Up top Dale noticed the winds increase, yet he and friends decided to exit for the valley floor, not so much because of the storm, but so some of his friends could begin their drive back to Marin County.
‘It was probably 40 minutes before help arrived,’ said Cox. ‘I had been pinned beneath a lot of wreckage and couldn’t get up. Another passenger, Chris Lougerikas, was nearly halfway out of the car hanging onto my leg, clinging literally for her life until I could get a hand on her and pull her in. Dan, the operator, began to clear debris, metal and Plexiglas off me so I could finally stand up.
‘Dan and I pried open the evacuation compartment, but the part of the cabin where the winch was supposed to be attached was completely gone. Most of the equipment was smashed, along with the radio, but we were able to get the metal cable out.
‘We heard voices down below and began shouting to them, telling them about the severity of the situation. We lowered the cable and they attached a nylon climbing rope. We pulled that rope back in and wrapped it over a bar that remained attached to part of the cabin. We then let the rope back down to the ground.
‘A patrolman, Chris Phillips, tied the rope around himself and Dan and I began trying to pull him up, hand over hand. We were a good 8 feet from the ground and the going was slow so I yelled out for more muscles.
‘My friend from Marin, Frank Meagher, climbed over the wreckage and began to help us.
‘The three of us managed to get Chris up after some exhausting work. I was so scared. My chest was really hurting, but my energy was pumped. Chris went right to work. Jim Mott had arrived and we started muscling him up into the cable car. I remember how it was like standing on an icy ledge of a tall building hauling up an anchor. We were really straining but we got him in. I was the first guy Jim saw. He looked right into my eyes. He looked around, determined quickly what needed to be done. From the moment he entered he took command and was in control. He looked back at me calmly and said, ‘We have work to do.’
‘Working with him and the others is something I can never forget. Those people did a hell of a job. Even though it’s been 30 years I remember it like yesterday. I also still strongly feel that the value of the accident was seeing all these people, hundreds of them, come together in the worst case scenario, united with one goal, to get these people down and get them help.’
Jim Mott first heard the word that the tram had stopped and ‘there was trouble getting it started’ while mulling over paperwork in his office underneath Squaw Valley’s Red Dog chairlift. He’d already been preparing to head up the mountain to help fellow patrollers with the daily ‘sweep’ to clear the slopes of any lingering skiers.
At 30 years of age, Jim had been working at Squaw Valley for 13 years, rising through the ranks from lift attendant to patrol director. He’d ridden herd over the ski patrol for six years and during that time directed several evacuations from chairs and many on-the-hill rescues. He had also dispersed enough first aid to injured skiers to last a lifetime. He knew the mountain and terrain surrounding Squaw’s 23 lifts like his own backyard.
‘I entered the cable car and surveyed what had happened,’ Jim recalled. ‘The big thing was to assess, evaluate quickly and get to the ones most seriously injured. The car was making a lot of noise and I was afraid in the back of my mind that the thing was going to fall.
‘The cable was too tight to free anybody so I called Jim King on the radio and asked him to send up somebody who knew about rigging. I also called for the doctor, Charlie Kellermyer. There were people in shock and badly injured. I knew three were already gone and could only hope to save everybody else.
‘People always ask me, ‘How did you keep it together in such carnage?’ At the same time you just go to work and do it. The biggest thing was to put the right people at the right places and we were able to do that.
‘Everybody performed, and to tell the truth, it was expected. We trained a lot and we had a strong patrol and good people on the mountain. Charlie had the hard part taking care of the people who were really hurt and the lady who eventually died. Everybody pulled together. The whole staff did their thing. The rescue was a great plus out of this terrible accident.
‘My adrenaline took over during the rescue. I worked 11 hours and at the end, being the last one to be lowered, I started feeling really tired. I’d periodically been checking the ropes for fraying. As I prepared to swing clear and get lowered I saw the rope I was on was worn to the core. But I was too exhausted to do anything. I said to hell with it and went for it. It held.
‘By the time I got home I was exhausted, so tired that I put the rescue behind me for the moment. I had to get up in a few hours to lead avalanche control.’
It had been a fairly casual Sunday for Jon Krauss, 26, a blond bearded six-foot-tall lower lift maintenance supervisor.
A native of upstate New York, Jon had moved to Tahoe in 1973 and had become, for awhile at least, an ‘average ski bum.’ His first job at Squaw Valley had been painting lift towers, but he had switched to the electrical crew, and from there to lift maintenance.
Near the end of the working day Jon began hearing chatter over the radio. Something was wrong with the tram.
Jon answered the call for a maintenance man. He grabbed his tool bag, and still wearing his baseball cap, vest and snowboots, quickly made his way to the tram building. There he found the tram manager disturbed, almost scared. The emergency car couldn’t be used to go onto the line: it was inoperable because the cables were too twisted. So Jon jumped on a snowcat taking Mott and others up the mountain. From the slope called Packer’s Downhill they walked, skied and thrashed through deep snow and past bands of rock to the most isolated part of the mountain near Tower Two.
‘I saw how much trouble it was to haul Mott up into the tram,’ Krauss remembered. ‘I decided instead to climb up the service ladder on Tower Two. The cables were high up, around 130 feet off the ground, so I attached a safety sling securing myself and straddled the haul cable. Jeff Dowling, another maintenance guy, was up there with me. The wind was blowing really hard, but shimmying down the cable to the car wasn’t that difficult. I climbed down about 75 feet and came in through the tram roof.
‘There was a lot of crying and wailing. That was the most unsettling thing – you could see they were hurt and scared. I went to see what was most needed. I called for a six-ton chain hoist and a couple of 3/8 chains. They arrived pretty quick. Jimmy King, who was in charge on the ground, was unbelievably well organized. It you needed something he never failed to get it to you and fast.
‘The come-along enabled us to bend the cable just enough to free human parts, or get boots off and slide legs out from underneath the cable.
‘Chris Phillips was a good man. He and I were just hanging on the winch, cranking on the come-along with all our strength. There was 17 tons of pressure. We could hardly move it, more like bending it. We’d move the winch from along a bar on the ceiling of the tram to wherever it was needed. We were exhausted, but we freed all the people.
‘Friends ask me from time to time about the rescue. We were prepared for it and were able to avert a real disaster. There was real teamwork and structure; it was a rescue where everyone really worked together. Charlie Kellermyer was cool as a moose up there. Every time I go into Squaw I can’t look at the tram without thinking about it. I wouldn’t hesitate to ride the car. Squaw’s lifts are maintained incredibly well and the mountain is in great shape.’
Evading the dread chorus of urban life, Dr.Charlie Kellermyer moved from Ohio to Squaw Valley with his wife Janie in 1969 to raise his family and practice medicine. Previously a veteran of Chicago’s Cook County General Emergency Room, the Northwestern University graduate joined the Truckee Tahoe Medical Group, bringing with him not only medical experience and fortitude to a rural community, but a gentleness and practicality reserved typically for those who love the wonders of life.
On duty that eventful day in April 1978, the 44-year-old physician had spent a rather slow morning. It was near the end of the afternoon when Jim Mott walked into the clinic and said there was trouble in the cable car.
Shortly afterward, Charlie received a call by radio: ‘It’s a catastrophe. They need a doctor.’ A veteran backcountry skier, Charlie had participated in numerous rescues in canyons and far-off mountain tops with search and rescue units.
He called his wife and asked her to bring cold weather clothes and his big backpack set up for emergencies. Charlie, with aid from associates, notified doctors and nurses throughout the area. He grabbed a miner-type headlamp and his medical kit and with fellow doctor Denny Chez, headed up to Gold Coast. It was there that Denny would set up a temporary hospital. From there Charlie rode by snowcat, then hiked towards the accident site. Once there he was pulled up into the damaged cabin.
‘Once in the cabin I made a quick assessment of all the injuries,’ Charlie recalled. ‘I initially tried to set some serious injuries and treat others, then started sending down some of the passengers. We couldn’t use any IV solutions – they’d have frozen. But it was a matter of working with what we had, and doing one thing at a time.
‘I’m still amazed and impressed with how calm everybody was. Everybody waited his or her turn. It was a real mess. The ski equipment was so enmeshed with bodies, clothing, human limbs and wreckage. I remember trying to free up a six-year-old girl. Chris Phillips looked over at me and said quietly, ‘just take off the boot.’ Sometimes it was just a matter of working out the puzzle until we got one leg, one foot to identify with a certain person. It became more straightforward. There were many bad injuries. We might have sent a couple of persons down in a Stokes (backboard). I lost all track of time. I think I finally came down after 1 a.m.
‘Squaw’s response was very impressive. In a matter of an hour people were there in strength. I was impressed with the way people conducted themselves. The whole community pulled together. I don’t have bad memories. It’s an event no one can deny and remains newsworthy and very unfortunate. However, a lot of brave people rose to the occasion and displayed invaluable strength. That’s what I mostly remember.’
Skiing had stayed choice all afternoon for Mike ‘Goofy’ Shimmons, 25, a Squaw Valley homeowner and carpenter. Mike, along with Don ‘Looney’ Lounibos and Hugh ‘Huey’ Bryce, had been riding the tram to ski trackless Tower 16 runs all afternoon.
They’d just made the last tram ride on the green cable car, calling out for the elevator attendant to wait for them, rudely pushing past several people already inside who were part of a group of 480 Mormon Church members convening in Squaw Valley. They squeezed in between the 61 other passengers, including Joan and Cy Young, Squaw Valley residents, who were also headed for a final powder run of the final trip of the final day of the tram running for the season.
‘The tram stopped suddenly, right in front of the cliffs, swinging and jostling everybody. We got the idea quickly enough that something was really wrong,’ remembered Mike. ‘Especially after hearing talk over the radio about the upper car. As a matter of fact, the first thing I heard come over was somebody saying, ‘it’s half gone.’
‘At that point we didn’t wait around. Instead, we broke out the evacuation equipment from under the floor, which lead to the trap door.
‘We decided to select the smallest child to go first in case for some reason the winch didn’t work. We couldn’t see out very well, but we knew we were high up. At least we could pull a kid back inside instead of some 200 pound guy if the device failed. Everybody was worried but calm. We started lowering more children, but after just a few the winch broke down. It was a pain anyway. It wasn’t geared properly, but instead was one to one, direct in, so you had to pull the whole weight of the cable back into the car. Something was rattling around loose in the mechanism.
‘Being the only ones on board, it seemed, with any mechanical knowledge, myself, Looney and Huey took the complete mechanism apart. We ordered everyone up against the walls, spread the winch out on the floor, smoked a joint and tried to figure the thing out. Patrol was directly below and they sent some tools up. We finally ended up tin-snipping a piece of metal from the car itself to shim the mechanism. We then were able to put it all back together.
‘Nobody freaked during any of this: everybody was calm. After lowering the rest of the women and children, the rest of us chose numbers and went down one after another. It was a slow process and the wind was really bashing us about. It was dark and wet and cold. I don’t like heights and you had to strap yourself into this webbed bosun’s chair, get lowered and spin around in the wind.
‘The only other big problem was the hydraulic fluid for the winch. It needed a lot of lubricant and we ran out of oil for it. We began to use suntan lotion and stripped the women’s purses of any cosmetics and lotions, even lipstick.
‘Hugh was the real hero. It had been decided that he’d be the last out so he was in charge of lowering the passengers. Finally, really late, hours after all this began, he was the last guy out the trapdoor. If it had jammed, slipped, or whatever, and Hugh had gotten stuck, he most likely would have died in midair with no chance of help at the time.’
What caused the cable to lift off the cable car remains a mystery. Both the District attorney’s office and Cal-OSHA officially declared the accident ‘An act of God.’
Squaw Valley owner Alex Cushing promised that the tram would not be replaced until a cause for the bizarre accident could be determined.
‘I felt a personal responsibility for all those people in the tram,’ admitted Cushing who passed away in 2006. ‘Some people will advise you not to touch a hot potato, but this tram accident had to be addressed.’
A host of inspectors and experts descended on Squaw Valley including James Beaton, head of the State Division of Industrial Safety Investigations, and Richard Randolph, president of the Colorado Tram Safety Board.
Cushing also hired an independent investigator, Dr. Karl Bittner, a professor at the University of Graz from Linz, Austria, considered the foremost expert in the world in tramway design.
‘Professor Bittner could find no hard evidence as to the cause of the accident,’ explained the late Cushing. ‘However, he produced a summary which suggested four necessary modifications to the tram system: deepening the grooves in which the cable rests, modifying the guard or hangar area on the tram car itself so that it extended out past the edge of the car clear to the bottom and installing cable clamps on the towers.’
The demolished car was lowered three months later, supervised by Hans Burkhardt. After the cable was lifted back into place with the aid of special equipment, the cabin made its final trip down without incident.
A new car, similar in design, was installed in mid-December 1978. New modifications were added and permits granted after a Cal-OSHA laundry list of demands were met.
On January 4, 1979, at 8:30 a.m., the corrugated door at the tram base station went up and 110 skiers poured into the new yellow tramcar. Operator Pat Nay pushed the door closed, waited for the signal to go, and the Squaw Valley cable car was back in business.
‘We took every positive step to see that the derailment didn’t occur again,’ explained Cushing. ‘We put a ten-second delay in the emergency braking system to ensure that this accident could never occur again under any circumstance. It is now the cable car we thought we had in 1968 when it first opened to the public.’
Indeed, Squaw Valley employs 11 full-time drivers and controllers. Daily, they go through a thorough safety inspection that includes a check of brakes, counterweights, track rope anchors, sheaves and all line machinery. State inspectors periodically perform brake tests and ascend towers to inspect the system.
In November 1998, Squaw modernized its cable car. Skylights and more scenic viewing highlighted the new C-Tech ‘jumbo’ cable car cabins that featured a revolutionary heating system and automated doors.
Since the accident, Squaw Valley has maintained an unblemished safety record. By 2008, the cable car has been estimated to have safely delivered over 45 million passengers to their destination.
No official report of the accident was ever released to the public.