Heroes of the cross: Steamboat ski patrollers recount a lifesaving rescue during one of the worst wrecks of the winter
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — It looked like a white sheet had been pulled over the bleak Wyoming landscape as Alex Hopkins tried to keep his Ford pickup from careening off the pavement.
It was Sunday, March 1. A patroller with Steamboat Ski Patrol, Hopkins was headed to a work exchange at Grand Targhee Resort on the western edge of the Cowboy State. With him were two other patrollers, Dave Thomas and Xavier Deguin, a Frenchman doing a winter stint in the U.S.
The weather worsened as the men drove northward. Visibility became so bad that Hopkins missed the turnoff to Interstate 80 at Crescent Junction, about 50 miles from the Colorado border. Still, the men remained calm and drove on through the white murk as the truck resumed its course.
“As ski patrollers, it’s nothing we haven’t been through before,” Thomas said.
They even have an aphorism to give a silver lining to such situations: “Bad driving equals good skiing.”
But as they turned onto the interstate, it became increasingly clear this storm was no joking matter. Black ice turned the pavement into a luge track. Hopkins passed five semitrailers but slowed down as the visibility diminished even further. At mile marker 163, about 60 miles east of Rock Springs, Hopkins noticed a handful of cows stranded on the side of the road.
A few miles later, a man emerged from the landscape running down the median. He was wearing a reflective jacket and waving flashlights in both hands, yelling at Hopkins to slow down. The patroller tried to stop but his truck slid like a hockey puck. It finally came to a stop 100 yards later, mere feet from the bumper of a wrecked semitrailer.
The scene before them looked like a battleground. Semitrailers had crashed into each other, piled into mangled heaps. One trailer had been hit so hard that it was lifted skyward and propped over the semi behind it like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A video posted to YouTube by truck driver David Cuarezma showed the wreckage. In a shorter video he posted to Facebook of the 100-vehicle pileup, which has received more than a million views, Cuarezma described I-80 as the “most dangerous road in United States,” and the crash as the worst he has ever experienced.
Hopkins turned to the two men. The five semitrailers they had passed would be there soon and would have an even harder time stopping. In seconds, the patrollers could be hit from behind with the force of thousands of pounds.
“We’re in a bad place. We need to get out of here,” Hopkins told his fellow patrollers, pulling off to the side of the wind-drifted interstate.
Hopkins watched in the rearview as a semitrailer barreled toward them, its back end jackknifed and sliding. When it was only about a hundred feet away, it clipped another semi, which wedged it into the median and created a V of protection around the patrollers.
Now that they were in a safer spot, the patrollers turned their attention to the victims of the crash. First responders had not yet arrived on the scene. The men felt a duty to help and fell back on their years of training for guidance.
“This is what we do,” Hopkins said. “Going outside, handling high-stress situations, handling accidents and trauma and medical issues in a cold, winter environment — that is literally our job description.”
The three men donned their patrol jackets for warmth and to signify their expertise in providing first aid. The patrollers grabbed what medical supplies they had, mostly bandages, and began going door to door and checking on victims.
One man had a broken arm. Another was wheezing from a respiratory problem. Many were shivering from shock and the wind, drained from the surge of adrenaline that shot through their bodies in the wake of the mayhem. Some were bleeding from the face, shards of broken glass strewn across the cabs of vehicles with busted windows.
Debris littered the road. Gasoline leaked from engines. Injured cows limped through the snow, making desperate screams that sent shivers through the patrollers’ bodies.
Eventually first responders arrived, including a wide-eyed younger man with Wyoming State Patrol who told the three men he had never seen anything like this.
“It was unreal,” Deguin said.” Unreal, even for the police, the firemen.”
As the three patrollers approached the end of the wreckage, they encountered a car that had been crushed into a crumpled mess of metal.
“It had basically been compressed in three directions,” Thomas said.
The driver inside, a man, was severely hurt but alive and breathing. Some people were trying to pry the door open but to no avail.
Hopkins peered inside the car. The steering wheel was jammed into the driver’s chest. The entire engine block was pushed 3 feet back from where it should have been. A semitrailer had plowed into the passenger side, its front end protruding through the broken window glass.
Hopkins asked the driver if he had any life-threatening injuries. Struggling for air through the weight of the steering wheel against his chest, the man said he was OK.
“But please, check on my wife. I’m worried about her,” the man told Hopkins.
Hopkins noticed the man was clutching the hand of a woman on the steering wheel. The patroller reached through the blown windshield to pull back the passenger air bag. His wife was dead.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell him,” Hopkins said.
Instead, he comforted the injured man, assuring him they were doing everything they could to help. Eventually, rescuers were able to free the man. Hopkins would later see him in the back of an ambulance receiving medical attention.
Authorities later identified the man’s wife as Deborah Carrel, 53, from Michigan. She was one of three fatalities confirmed in the crash, according to media reports.
It was 4 a.m. by the time officials had cleared a narrow path through the rubble. Hopkins snaked his truck through the maze of marred vehicles as the men continued their journey northward.
It would take days before the interstate would be cleared. Even a week later, as the three patrollers returned to Colorado, they could still see shrapnel on the roadside.
Thinking back on that day, the men cannot stop thinking how lucky they are to have gotten out alive and unharmed. Things could have been much worse, they all agreed, both for them and the victims of the crash.
“I think the key to this whole thing is that the three of us together were a great team,” Hopkins said. “On that day, on that road, I would not have rather had anyone else but these two with me.”
Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke commended the men’s heroic efforts. He still gets teary-eyed when he thinks of the selflessness they exhibited on that day.
“It shows that the dedication and training these guys put in to helping other people goes far beyond the ski area,” Kohnke said.
Ski Patrol has a motto, he added, which exemplifies the camaraderie of its members.
“We are not like family,” he recited. “We are a family.”
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After almost four years of providing service to the community as a standalone, full-service emergency department, Steamboat Emergency Center will end its operations April 30.