Survivors and investigators try to reconstruct calamity

By Joseph B. Frazier, The Associated Press
Saturday June 01, 2002

Day-long rescue was aided by presence of doctor, firemen 

TIMBERLINE LODGE, Ore. – Cleve Joiner, who has made a career rescuing others, watched in disbelief as his 14-year-old son slid down an icy slope into a crevasse on Mount Hood along with eight other climbers. 

It was the beginning of a chain reaction that killed three other climbers and led to the crash of an Air Force Reserve helicopter on Thursday. 

“There were three teams,” Joiner said Friday, the day after the calamity. “There was a team at the very top, a team in the middle, and then the team that my son was on, three of them above the crevasse, and then we were on the opposite side.” 

Many of the details remain unclear, lost in a swirl of steel ice axes, nylon climbing ropes and terror. It began just after 9 a.m. 

“The top team lost their footing, took out the next four, then took out my son and them, knocked them down, and then they went into the crevasse,” Joiner said on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America. They were climbing with other firemen trained in first aid. 

“It happened so quick that it was hard to think about what it was like,” said Cole Joiner, a high school freshman. “I just remember seeing climbers come down at me and then being in the hole.” 

Nearly 50 climbers had registered to climb to the summit of 11,240-foot Mount Hood — Oregon’s highest peak — on Thursday. 

A number of them rushed to the edge of the 25-foot deep cleft, including Dr. Steve Boyer, a Portland emergency room physician. Climbers took ropes from the Joiner party and began preparing for what proved to be a daylong rescue operation. 

“What really was fortunate was there were lots of well-trained paramedics there before I arrived,” said Boyer. 

“They had set up a nice pulley system and I immediately went down into the crevasse to help with the decision of who had treatable injuries ... and making triage decisions who should come out of the crevasse first.” 

Rescue parties began arriving on foot, and military helicopters were sent to carry victims. Two hours after the first accident, Cole Joiner was pulled from the crevasse, and hugged his father. 

A Pave Hawk helicopter lifted a seriously injured climber off the mountain, returned for another, and was preparing to hoist a third aboard when the pilot lost control. 

Boyer blamed it on a wind shift, but the Air Force Reserve was just beginning its investigation and had not released a cause of the accident. 

The helicopter veered away from the cluster of rescuers around the crevasse and a crewman released the cable to the waiting gurney, in an apparent effort to avoid further casualties. 

“The wind changed, they lost their air power,” Boyer said. “I glanced over my left shoulder .... I saw that they were losing power, and I thought, ’Oh my God! They are going crash!” 

The chopper’s nose touched the snow, it appeared to right itself, and then the uphill rotor dug into the slope. The blades spun off the aircraft, which tumbled down the hill, tossing out all four crewmembers, according to witnesses and videotape of the incident. 

“It is a miracle that no one had major injuries,” said Boyer. 

A California man, John Biggs, 62, of Windsor, was confirmed Friday as among the three killed. The others were William Gordon Ward, 49, and Richard T. Read, 48, both of Forest Grove. 

Biggs was climbing with the Rev. Thomas Hillman, 45, also of Windsor, Hillman’s wife Holly said. She said she had spoken by telephone with her husband in the hospital where he was being treated for a head injury, but that he had offered few details. 

“He’s just so fuzzy-minded,” she said. “He was unconscious for a long time.” 

She said another group lost its footing and crashed into Biggs and Hillman. 

“That sent John flying down the slope,” she said. “Tom did all he could to stop the fall, but the other team got tangled with John and got tangled up in the crevasse.” 

Rescuers went up Mount Hood early Friday to retrieve the last of three climbers killed, and the Air Force announced that an investigating team would be on the mountain within 24 to 48 hours.