April 7, 2006 in Nation/World

Three killed after fall into geothermal vent

Amanda Covarrubias and Doug Smith Los Angeles Times
 
Associated Press photo

Personnel gather around a vent during a rescue operation at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Thursday.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – Three ski patrol members were killed Thursday at Mammoth Mountain ski area when they fell into a geothermal vent that they were working to fence off. Seven other ski patrollers were injured in the incident.

The deaths bring the total this year to eight at the popular Eastern Sierra ski resort, which broke its all-time snowfall record Tuesday. This winter season has been a deadly one for California resorts, with at least 12 skiers dying on the slopes.

In the wake of a blizzard, four patrollers had been working Thursday morning on the barrier around the natural vent – a crevasse through which toxic subterranean gases escape – to keep skiers from the dangerous opening. Mammoth, which rises to 11,053 feet in an active volcanic area, has several such vents, also called fumaroles.

“The gas levels were very high, and when the patrollers first went to fence it off, there was a lot of snow, but the opening quite small,” Mammoth Lakes Mayor Rick Wood said. “There was a 12-foot wide cave, 22 feet deep. What happened is two of four patrollers fell through the hole and the snow gave way. Two went in after them, and only one survived.”

Members of the ski patrol, firefighters and paramedics responded. The seven injured patrollers – six who responded to the accident – were taken to Mammoth Hospital in Mammoth Lakes, where most were expected to stay overnight, Wood said.

Ski patrol members, who are trained in rescue and first aid, respond to accidents, trigger avalanches by releasing built-up snow and erect barriers to hazards.

The names of most of the dead ski patrol members, all men, were being withheld until family members could be notified. The Mono County coroner has not determined whether they died from the fall or from inhaling toxic fumes.

One of the dead was Charles Walter Rosenthal, a researcher for the University of California, Santa Barbara, who jumped in to help his two fellow patrollers who had fallen into the vent. University spokesman Paul Desruisseaux said Rosenthal, a married father in his 40s, worked at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Laboratory in Mammoth Lakes. He was the president of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center and an expert in snow hydrology and remote sensing of snow.

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