26 Feb Tram Car Trauma at Squaw Valley
It was 3:45 p.m. on April 15, 1978, when a particularly muscular Sierra blizzard struck Squaw Valley ski resort. The red tram, filled with 44 occupants, was heading steadily toward the base of the mountain when an unknown event caused it to dislodge from its support cables. Unmoored from the outside cable of the two-cable support system, the cart plummeted toward the ground nearly 100 feet below.
The car fell 75 feet before the remaining cable tightened and bounced the terrified passengers back up toward the snowy skies like a yo-yo.
Meanwhile, the outside cable, relieved of its load, jumped over top of Tower 2, came loose of its moorings and crashed toward the ground when it collided violently with the car, slicing the metal like a sharp cleaver through ripe fruit.
The 17-ton cable pinned 12 passengers to the car’s floor, the enormous force killing three men instantly. The wives of those three men were also in the car. While one of them struggled at her dead husband’s side as the industrial-sized wire pressed her skis into her chest, another grew increasingly hysterical, screaming for her husband in the car, according to published reports.
One man, David Penning, was flung headlong from the gashed cable car. Penning merely suffered a broken rib and walked away from the scene. He was the first person to escape the accident—a tragedy that would eventually result in four deaths, multiple injuries of varying severity and inflicting trauma on everyone involved.
On that Saturday, Squaw Valley Patrol Director Jim Mott was in his office reviewing accidents typical for a spring day at Squaw when he received a call regarding the red car of the Squaw Valley tram.
The extent of the accident wasn’t immediately apparent. Mott returned to his work and continued daydreaming about the imminent closure of the ski resort, as he was headed to warmer latitudes to enjoy the off-season in the sun, he would later tell reporters.
However, it wasn’t long before the radio dispatches painted an increasingly desperate picture.
Dan Gutowsky, a 25-year-old Squaw Valley employee from Marin County, was the red car operator that day. Soon after the car came to rest, Gutowsky reported via radio that at least two passengers were dead and the car was littered with men, women and children groaning as well as ski equipment, shrapnel and assorted debris.
Veteran ski patrolman Chris Phillips was the first responder to arrive at the scene. He and Gutowsky agreed to deploy the attached escape cable immediately, but the men soon discovered the winch that was a principle part of the apparatus had been irreparably damaged during the accident. However, the cable itself was still intact. Gutowsky lowered the cable to Phillips, who attached a nylon climbing rope to the cable, which Gutowsky then gathered back up into the dangling car.
Phillips tied the other end of the rope around himself and hunkered down as Gutowsky and two uninjured passengers pulled hand over hand until they had the patrolman on board.
Soon thereafter, Mott arrived on the scene and followed suit. After being hoisted into the car, Mott assessed the disaster, noting the various injuries, the dead, the uninjured, the calm and hysterical. He called for maintenance and a doctor as the blizzard intensified, the wind growing sharper and more insistent as the overcast sky darkened and temperatures dropped precipitously.
The rescue’s conditions were a worst-case scenario, Mott would later tell reporters.
The occupants who had elected to take the last tram down the mountain had done so for a variety of reasons—some wanted to reach their cars quicker to drive back to the Bay Area, some did not want to ski in the hazardous conditions and some weren’t skiers but tourists who wanted a good view, including seven who had spent the day at a High Camp bar birthday party.
Rescuers Race Time
Mott and Phillips distributed blankets to warm the living and cover the dead. Unable to lift the enormously heavy cable that continued to trap nine survivors, including a six-year-old girl, the two men administered what medical aid they could muster.
Later, Dr. Charles Kellermyer was hoisted up to cable car to provide medical care. He attempted to provide IV fluid to 20-year-old Gina Wisniewski, the most badly injured of the survivors, but the cold temperatures caused the fluid to freeze.
With the help of famed mountaineers Jim Bridwell, Rich Sylvester and Malcolm Jolly, the patrolmen established a complex system of ropes and climbing belays capable of extracting the survivors and safely lowering them to the ground.
Jon Krauss, a maintenance worker with the expertise necessary to move the cable off of those who remained pinned, answered the call and climbed the ladder at Tower 2. Using a safety sling, Krauss shimmied over and descended nearly 75 feet to enter through the damaged car’s roof.
Krauss helped with the belay system before turning his attention to removing the 17-ton cable off the dead and injured.
Approximately one hour and 40 minutes after the accident, the first passenger was lowered to safety and whisked away to the Gold Coast mid-mountain lodge, which was transformed into a makeshift field hospital.
While the emergency responders were aware proper triage dictated they remove the most injured people first, the weight of the cable made the feat nearly impossible and so they turned their attention to removing those unfettered by the cable.
Mott, Phillips, Krauss, Gutowsky and Kellermyer operated with a gnawing knowledge that the car could fall at anytime and turn the rescue mission into an utter disaster. Speed mattered.
Going to Ground
In the meantime, the entire Squaw Valley community mobilized, as more than 200 volunteers—ski patrol, regular employees, doctors, nurses, town residents and tourists—provided some sort of assistance, ranging from operating the snowmobiles and cats conveying the injured to nearby first-aid stations, to bringing food and water for rescue workers, to building a huge bonfire at the site of the crash to keep the responders warm.
Survivors were transferred from Gold Country down to the hospital at the bottom of Squaw Valley via the gondola, which continued to operate despite high-velocity wind, and then onto one of two area hospitals, Tahoe/Truckee Medical Center 12 miles away and Washoe Medical Center in Reno, which was 45 miles away.
As the evacuation of the red car proceeded steadily and carefully, Mott and Phillips turned their attention to lifting the cable off the injured with a small portable winch that had been lofted up to the car via the pulley system.
The winch was only able to bear the weight of seven tons; it managed to lift the cable about a half-inch off the trapped occupants, but the minimal distance was enough for some people to remove their ski boots and escape the clutches of the trap with little more than bruises on their shins.
For Wisniewski, whose husband, Dean, had died in the initial crash, the margin was insufficient. She remained trapped a full seven hours before the rescue workers, who had been strenuously working in the bitter cold for five hours straight, were able to extract her and another woman who had suffered a fractured leg. Wisniewski was lowered via a stretcher to Ken Spencer, a 22-year-old ski instructor who held on to her as they raced furiously to the field hospital. She died en route.
Mott, Phillips, Krauss, Kellermyer and Gutowsky were the only ones on board left alive. After removing the dead bodies from the scene and lowering them to the ground, the men filed one-by-one from the scene of devastation.
Mott later told reporters that the climbing rope by which he escaped was so frayed that he was unsure whether it would snap before he reached terra firma. It didn’t. Mott touched down at just before 1 a.m., approximately nine hours after the accident.
Act of God
The exact cause of the Squaw Valley tram accident remains a mystery. Obvious factors such as high wind velocity, which caused the car to sway significantly, likely contributed, but investigators with Placer County District Attorney’s Office and Cal-OSHA declared the event an “act of God.”
Squaw Valley owner Alex Cushing enlisted Dr. Karl Bittner, a world-renowned expert on tram design, to investigate the accident. Bittner was unable to determine a cause of the accident but offered suggestions to make the contraption safer in the future.
A new car was installed in December 1978—nearly eight months after the tragedy—and the first run occurred in January of the following year, with hundreds of undaunted skiers pouring into the car.
In 1998, Squaw Valley upgraded its cable car system and has maintained a sterling safety record since.
Editor’s Note: The author consulted an array of sources in writing this article, but he is particularly indebted to the accounts of the accident written by Dick Dorworth for Ski Magazine and the late Robert Frohlich for Moonshine Ink.
Matthew Renda is a Santa Cruz–based writer.
Tricia BestPosted at 13:52h, 17 April
I was one of the rescued-my husband Larry Hinkle died under the cable and I sat on his body with our best friends(they were in the up car and helped get the folks out of that one) little boy in my arms and listened to Mrs. W scream as well as Diane Fielding, a young girl who a man called Chris held until we could get her out of the mass of skis and poles at the front of the car-his son who was only 18 gave me his New Mexico hat and helped keep the pieces of the roof off the Doctor and his wife who were just behind me-he was so brave and calm. Jim Mott and all the rescue folks-what can I say except thank you for you saved not just me but all of us in the middle of a blizzard, in the dark, in the wind and cold-all of you define courage to me to this day, 40 years later. The people of Lake Tahoe and Truckee hold a special place in my heart as well for you also saved us, comforted us, gave us warm clothes and warm drink and Kleenex-a special mention for the firemen especially the one that held my hand for hours in the hallway at Truckee hospital. I knew Tahoe as that wonderful magical place where my Great Aunt and Uncle had a cabin in Tahoe Vista that we visited on a regular basis all of my growing up and my favorite spot for fun and beauty and that day was the only time I skied at Squaw. I do not remember the name of the folks in Tahoe Vista, across from the Post Office restaurant but we got their last room that night of the 14th-there were Larry and I, Mark, Debbie, Marks brother, Michael their son and maybe one or two more-I do not remember now but those folks were so good to us and the lady that owned the place sat with me all the next day until my father and Larry’s folks and my brother in law Steve and my sister Lee-ann came to collect us and take us home. Liz is correct-even after all of these years I cannot forget all of that day-the good, the terrifying and the miracles that got us down safe-if I die knowing that that accident remains the worst in US history, I will be very happy. I was determined not to lose the Lake as my special place so I skied the next year and moved up to spend the summer of 1979 there as my sisters family lived in Incline Village after building their house that year-it still holds magic for me and I am grateful for that beyond words
Amy CashdollarPosted at 14:16h, 16 January
My name is Amy on April 15, 1978 my life changed forever. I learned that day there was no one responsible for the safety of my life but me whenever I go somewhere I know exactly where all the exits are and I’m always mindful of the weather report.
We live in a world in something that honestly could’ve been prevented ends up being deemed an act of God!
What I will never forget is the woman that I unfortunately referred to as an oriental woman she laid on the floor of the tram and even in my young age I could tell she was seriously injured something just wasn’t right. She called out for Dean and she called out for Deanna. The position she was in she wasn’t able to really assess how catastrophic the accident was. There was a man laying next to her I could see a part of his body because the ceiling of the trim had caved in and so his upper torso in his arms I could see as a snow built up on his hands and his arm I would learn later that man was her husband but for some reason I don’t recall when she would call out for her daughter her daughter ever responding .
I honestly did not want to leave her on the tram however I realized if they didn’t get me out I was tangled around so many others it was imperative that we get off the tram and allow the injured to receive their proper medical treatment.
I was to learn the following morning that the lady that I helped as she was being transported to the hospital I believe what happened her spleen ruptured and she died.
I’m so glad that happened the next day for selfish reasons news reporters kept putting their cameras in their microphones in front of my face so finally just to get rid of them I gave an interview to KCRA.
What I remember that day I saw the worst in humanity and I also saw the best in humanity. However when this is Wisniewsky late suffering people were commenting that they were losing they were uncomfortable let’s put it that way and they would move and each time somebody would move so they could feel more comfortable she would look at me and she say I can’t breathe and I would big people around us to please stop. I watch this woman suffering in Grace wondering where is her husband and her little girl she continued to call out her name.
The tragedy of this woman’s death and her husband‘s death and what happened to her little girl once she got off the tram the story got worse.
This is what I learned about the worst of humanity. As privacy to the family I will not tell their story however to be perfectly honest there are days I look up and think where was God.
Because after all the time God was going to be blamed for the catastrophe.
To all of us who survived that accident I guess we are truly the best ones because we were able to go on with our lives and hopefully become even better people.
And for Mrs. Wesneisky, Who lost her life on that tram I always hope that her little daughter Dena was able to have a nice fulfilled life surrounded by those who actually love her and not judge her because she was Filipino.
when we have such catastrophes in our world the specific catastrophe isn’t the only story because each life that was impacted a story actually ends and begins at that very moment.
I am a grandmother now I don’t honestly don’t think about the Squaw Valley tram accident however every once in a while someone will bring it up and normally I don’t say anything.
However today I want to thank everyone that rescued everyone on the tram. They worked hard through the night and never gave up you can explain to someone how bad it was snowing you can explain to someone how quickly the tram dropped 75 feet and then something caught it from crashing to the ground and like a yo-yo it came back up again and that’s when the crash happened the top of the tram hit something and caused it to crash into itself and cause such devastation .
They are heroes the walk amongst us every day just normal looking people because what does a hero really look like.
Richard TothPosted at 22:17h, 05 May
I went to Squaw Valley in the summer of 1994 with my late wife. I hadn’t known about the gondola accident at that time or we might not have gone on it. I knew that it was a horrible accident later in the year, but could find little information. I knew that the terror was horrible and I did read about the snapping of the cable. To read about the heroism here is incredible and so many were heroes, on the tram, and of course the rescuers, in a brutal snowstorm yet. I am sure that this ski resort doesn’t want this story told, or told again, but I think it is important for people to remember that there are risks with skiing but also that there are many heroes, and in this case almost super human. All those people should be recognized in CA as great figures in sports history because the bravery and physical strength it also takes is something all Americans can appreciate, admire and never forget. It also occurred at a Ski area that I believe has held tow Winter Olympics. I also want to thank Mrs. Hinkle for telling her vivid true tale
Richard TothPosted at 22:19h, 05 May
Thank you for your memories of such terror, tragedy but also of heroism, optimism and recovery.
Dana LewisPosted at 06:39h, 23 May
I was 11 my family was there that day. We were trying to get on that tram. My dad was almost violently begging. The only other option was for us to ski halfway down to the gondola. It was a white out blizzard. We were good skiers but you couldn’t see. My brothers were 9 and 13. We made it to the gondola, only because we had skied there so many times, that we literally knew the turns and length of the slope. There were so many people trying to get on. My dad and another man pushed ahead. That man had 2 children as well. They dragged us to the front and took over one of the last gondolas going down. We were crowded in and that thing was swinging in the wind so bad. It was horizontal. At the time I didn’t realize the how extreme that was, but as I got older, when I look back I cringe and think how lucky we are!
So, watch the movie Break.
Roger DonohuePosted at 11:03h, 21 February
Hello, my name is Buster Donohue and I also servived that stormy day on the red car at Squaw Valley. My girlfriend, who has been my wife now for the past forty years was trapped with me under that cable. When they decided to finally call it an act of God, I concurred with that statement fully in my mind and heart. For apart from the heroic feats of all those special people who tirelessly worked that frigid night to save all of us from that tragic disaster and in respect to the families of those four that tragically lost their lives that night. I still believe that God’s hand was all over that event and time in history. I was only a twenty one year old young man who went up with our small group of six to have a wonderful day of spring skiing little to know what would lie ahead of us as we stood in the cafeteria below at the Squaw Valley resort and decided to take a trip up the mountain to high camp on the tram. We just caught the last car to come down the mountain and the events that took place after entering the red car and moving down the mountain will never leave my mind and heart. My life has never been the same since then. To this day I still enjoy going to Tahoe to enjoy its vistas and beauty and I still enjoy doing the mountains of the Sierra with my daughter but to this day I have never been back to Squaw Valley. Maybe one death before I depart this earth and accend to heaven I may get back to Squaw. Thanks to all those who sacrificed their own safety that day and night to save us from a tragic event. God Bless!
Terry AkensPosted at 16:52h, 26 February
Was married to the tram operator in the other tram Mike Salvatore. I worked in the office near the bottom of the large blocks that work with the tram operation. I remember hearing a large boom and wind The cables lifted up and wipe like rubber band. I waited for him for hours. He finally came down through the wrench in the car it was a nightmare. But so glad he was safe. No injuries in his car
Valodi FosterPosted at 21:55h, 11 March
03/11/21 I just read this. I was on the tram with two children. The cabin I rented for the group of us that weekend was rented from the next door neighbors of Larry’s parents. I visited with Larry’s parents twice afterwards. They were so devastated. I imagine they have passed now, but I think of them and Larry when I recall the event. I wish you well. Regardless of the joys I hope have come to you, there will always be this sorrow. If you ever want to talk, I’m available. Valodif@yahoo.com