Awareness of skier safety grows in wake of recent deaths
They say that tragedy strikes in threes.
First there was the news of Michael Kennedy’s death at Aspen Mountain, then there was the news of Congressman Sonny Bono’s death at Heavenly Ski Area and last week the tragic death of an 11-year old girl at Alpine Meadows. For area skiers, this recent death is just one more reminder of the importance of skier safety.
Briana Marie Pearcy, 11, of Soquel, Calif., died within an hour of colliding with another skier at Alpine Meadows on Jan. 8.
She sustained massive head injuries, which killed her instantly and was pronounced dead at Tahoe Forest Hospital, according to Placer County Sheriff’s Department reports.
The 20-year-old Saratoga man, Richard Wei-Sheng Wang, who Pearcy collided with, broke his collarbone and was treated and released from TFH.
The accident happened at about 10:30 a.m. halfway down the ski area’s “Blue Trail.” Initial witnesses reported the two were skiing in control before the accident. Pearcy was skiing in a snowplow, when she reportedly crossed Wang’s path. The two tumbled down the slope after the collision.
Since the accident there have been conflicting reports relating to Wang’s speed.
“We are investigating every eyewitness report,” PCSO Sgt. Bill Langton said. “The reports we are receiving are conflicting. Unfortunately, skier speeds are subjective. What is fast for one skier is slow for another.”
Langton said it at this time a manslaughter charge is unlikely.
“Negligence in a case like this is difficult,” he said. “Unlike a car accident, there are no skid marks or evidence left behind. We can only rely on witness reports.”
A friend of the Pearcy family said the accident isn’t about wearing protective gear, rather it’s about policing areas on the mountain where speed is a concern.
“I’m not saying ski areas aren’t doing their jobs,” Truckee resident Daverle Gil said. “This is a problem everywhere there is a place where faster moving skiers merge with slower skiers.”
As the exact cause of Pearcy’s death is still under investigation, the number of calls about the relationsh between skier safety and the use of protective helmets are growing.
Local ski shops and ski areas are getting calls about helmets in the wake of the accident, even though California Ski Industry Association Executive Director Bob Roberts said it is difficult to pinpoint whether helmets would change the outcome of any accident.
“There are so many reasons why skiers are involved in fatal skiing accidents,” he said. “There are other sports with higher fatality rates.”
The National Ski Areas Association supported this. It reported during the past 13 years, an average 34 people have died skiing each year. During the 1996-97 season, 36 fatalities happened out of about 52.5 million skiers reported for the season. The rate of fatality was .69 per million skier/snowboarder visits.
The NSAA report pinpointed that most fatalities and injuries to skiers happen in the same population that suffers from high-risk behavior. Victims are predominantly male (85 percent) and their ages range from their late teens to late 20s. The study was conducted by Jasper Shealy, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. He said they are usually better than average skiers who are skiing at high rates of speed on the margins of intermediate trails.
The victim in this case wasn’t a 20-year-old male, but an 11-year-old girl.
“This accident could have been avoided,” said Squaw Valley Mountain Manager Jimmy King. “It is tragic.
“Let’s use this tragedy as a means for getting across a positive message.”
King, like Boreal General Manager Marshall Lewis, said ski areas share in the responsibility of helping protect children who frequent the slopes by encouraging the use of helmets.
Lewis said, “We’re not saying that helmets will save everyone all the time, but if a helmet saves one life, they’re worth it.”
Lewis skis with a helmet in an attempt to be a role model for his children.
“They asked me why they had to wear helmets if I didn’t wear one,” he said. “What was I supposed to do, but wear one.”
The helmet trend is far from trendy for adults, Lewis said. He said there are plenty of reasons not to wear helmets, but with children it may be their first line of defense in an accident situation.
Roberts said for adults the first line of defense for skiers is to ski within their ability levels. This includes snowboarders, who he said are becoming more athletic and are shooting off the slopes in attempts to “catch air.”
“There are more all-terrain parks where snowboarders can be more athletic,” he said. “We can provide the thrills, but it is just that much more dangerous.”
Area ski schools are attempting to protect their students. Boreal’s Animal Crackers coordinator said the school has 230 helmets in stock, enough to outfit every student who comes through the school daily.
“We don’t make the helmets mandatory,” coordinator Martyn Davies said. “We offer them to every student and 70 to 75 percent of all parents say yes without a second thought. Two to 3 percent of the remaining 25 percent will say no, no matter what.”
Davies said he requires his employees to wear helmets as role models. Employees at the ski school at Northstar-at-Tahoe are also encouraged to wear helmets to set an example. Northstar’s retail shop offers significant discounts to employees who chose to buy helmets.
“If we can’t set the examples, how are we going to convince the public to take the pro-active step in protecting themselves?” Davies said. “We use seatbelts and airbags in our cars and set examples for children.”
Lewis said the area is planning a day in February as a helmet awareness day.
“We feel strongly enough about the use of helmets,” he said. “What a better way to increase awareness by designating a day for parents and children to learn about their safety.”
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One to 3 inches of snow is forecast for Sunday, the National Weather Service said.