Air pocket was key
By Mark Reaman
Tragedy struck the valley last weekend when a man lost his life while shoveling a roof in Crested Butte South. Another man was buried for hours in Mt. Crested Butte when a roof slide caught him as he ran from the slide, but he survived beneath feet of snow.
The unusual variable snow conditions, the heavy snow amounts and spring temperatures made roof slides—often called urban avalanches—commonplace over the weekend. Twenty-five-year-old Stephan Michael Martel of Gunnison died after being buried in a slide while helping to clear the Tully’s roof in Crested Butte South on Saturday afternoon. According to the Mt. Crested Butte Police Department, Martel and 37-year-old Blair Tulliver (Tully) Burton were reportedly clearing snow accumulation from the roof at the time.
“Officers arrived on scene within nine minutes of the dispatch page,” a report from the police department stated. “Employees of the establishment had already begun digging for the two victims. Reportedly one victim was heard yelling and was quickly removed from the debris. The other victim was located shortly after, unresponsive. By 4:41 p.m. and 4:48 p.m., respectively, two ambulances left the scene en route to the Gunnison Valley Hospital with the two victims.”
Mt. Crested Butte police spokesperson Marjorie Trautman said she was not yet sure if the men were clearing snow while on the roof or from below the roof. Burton was transported for suspected hypothermia. Martel was pronounced deceased at the hospital as a result of his injuries.
Gunnison County Deputy Coroner, Lisa Merck reported on Tuesday the manner of death was “accidental” and the cause of death was asphyxia.
Crested Butte Fire Protection District operations chief Robert Weisbaum said that the department got the Saturday call of two people buried in a roof slide and responded immediately. “The first person was not completely buried and successfully rescued and transported to Gunnison Valley Hospital for precaution and treatment. Unfortunately, the other individual was completely buried. Resuscitative efforts were given and the patient was transported to the hospital. Unfortunately the burial ended up claiming his life.”
Miracle survival in similar situation
Friday evening at about 7:30 p.m., emergency responders were called to a house located at 14 Anthracite Drive in Mt. Crested Butte in a situation that basically ended in a miracle. Alex Theaker, 28, was clearing a gas meter at the house when he apparently heard the roof slide. He tried to run but got caught in the roof avalanche. As he was being buried he formed an air pocket near his face.
“I used avalanche training knowledge first and foremost,” commented Theaker. “I know that was a crucial element to my survival. I’m glad I paid some attention in school!”
When he did not return from the job after a few hours, his wife and parents went to look for him at the job site. They saw his truck and the debris from a roof slide and called 911.
Trautman said three Mt. Crested Butte police officers, two Crested Butte officers and approximately 15 Fire/EMS personnel responded to the scene.
Weisbaum said there was what he called a “prolonged burial” from the roof slide. Theaker was apparently buried beneath snow for more than two hours. “We were very fortunate to find him and begin resuscitative efforts which have proven to be successful,” Weisbaum said.
Trautman said Theaker was found breathing but unresponsive when paramedics and police located him. Theaker was transported to the Gunnison Valley Hospital to be treated for a low body core temperature. He was released from the hospital on Sunday.
Weisbaum said the low body core temperature and the fact he had an air pocket both played a part in his survival.
“The air pocket was key,” explained Weisbaum. “His arm created about a basketball-size opening at his mouth. The body starts to preserve itself when it gets cold—like the mammalian dive reflex. No fresh air was available, so he was rebreathing his own CO2. That’s what usually leads to asphyxiation. But it truly is amazing. Once he got oxygen and was rewarming, he began improving quite quickly.”
Local officials remind everyone to be extremely aware near roofs, given the amount of snow the area has received. The Crested Butte marshals reported a man was shoveling a roof in the 200 block of Teocalli Avenue on March 1 when the snow shed and trapped him. Emergency responders answered the call and he was rescued quickly and uninjured. Another report came in of a child caught in a roof slide at Irwin but he too was recovered quickly without injuries.
A memorial benefit of musicians and celebration of life will gather at Tully’s for Stephan Martel on Thursday, March 14. A GoFundMe campaign was also set up for the family and funeral expenses. It can be accessed through https://www.gofundme.com/anthony-martel-stefan-martel039s-memorial-fund.
Be careful both in town and in the backcountry.