Sometimes it pays to be in the right place at the right time. An off-duty firefighter is being hailed a hero as he happened to be in this situation – and even saved a life in the process.
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Utah Firefighter Tom Elbrecht was in Neffs Canyon and had planned to go skiing with his dog, Wiley. Seems like a normal outing, right? And it was… until he heard a noise while checking out the slopes.
At first he thought it was an animal or even nearby skiers talking with one another. Then, when he heard the noise again, it became clear that someone was urgently screaming out, “Help!”
Tom called out to the trapped skier as he did his best to get closer to them. In doing so, Tom found a slide path and debris field. It extended a couple hundred feet, making this rescue a complicated one. He knew he had to be extra careful, for both of their sakes.
Then, when he was able to locate the skier, the severity of the situation became even clearer.
“He was pinned against a tree,” Tom recalled of the incident. “He was buried. He was wrapped around the tree with just his head and arms exposed.”
Tom used his medical training to examine the skier and said it felt like he had a broken femur. Search and Rescue members eventually made their way to where they were, but weather and dangerous avalanche complications made it difficult for them to gain access to them.
Tom stayed with the victim the entire time. With the extreme conditions, he gave the skier his coat and vest, leaving him in just a t-shirt and pants.
“I was mentally prepared for I’ll just say three-four hours,” said Tom, “And when it began going on beyond that point it was just trying to keep morale high between the patient and myself.”
The two men huddled close together for warmth. Even Wiley joined the cuddles from time to time.
“The best way to put it was that some hours felt like minutes and some minutes felt like hours,” Tom shared.
There was somewhat a sigh of relief when two Search and Rescue skiers made it to the group, but that was just the beginning of this risky rescue mission. It would be eight hours until they were out of the woods – literally.
“We tried as a group to coordinate with the DPS helicopter and from what was told to me it sounded like it just wasn’t an option,” Tom told Fox 13. “So the decision was made to make an improvised harness and build an anchor and lower the individual down on the road to the remaining search and rescue members down below.”
Hours later, a snowmobile finally brought the skier down the mountain. From there, he was transported to the hospital.
Director of the Utah Avalanche Center Mark Staples said the survivor is very lucky as steep slopes are dangerous right now, even at low elevations. Avalanches can be triggered as soon as you leave the trailhead, he added.
“As soon as you leave the trailhead, there’s a good chance you can trigger an avalanche on a steep slope,” Mark said. “Other times of the year you have to go up higher on the mountain. Right now, as soon as you take one step forward you’re going to be faced with avalanches.”
After the rescue, Tom said it felt like an enormous weight had been lifted. And while he is being called a hero, to him, he simply did the right thing – and we’re so glad he did!
Share this story to celebrate Tom’s amazing rescue and the survival of the trapped skier.
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