As a flight attendant for more than 20 years, Cindy Fuki-Gim was trained to handle an emergency.
That training paid off for the now-retired Fuki-Gim Saturday when she was caught in one of five avalanches that came down in the White Pine area of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The slides injured five people, pushed several cars off the road and into a ravine and nearly buried a UTA bus.All five slides occurred within about an hour, beginning with the first at 2:59 p.m. Officials began allowing trapped skiers out and canyon residents back in about 8 p.m. Saturday. Wrecking crews planned to haul out vehicles damaged or stranded by the avalanche as soon as the traffic cleared, said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Lane Larkin. He expected the canyon road to be open late Saturday.
One victim, Paul Blackner, 24, was taken by helicopter to LDS Hospital. Salt Lake County Fire paramedics said he was suffering from a broken femur and other injuries. Four other victims, whose names were not available, were transported by ambulance to University Hospital with minor injuries.
Fuki-Gim was driving back into the canyon after a trip into town when she pulled her car to a stop behind a long line of cars. At first, she thought it was just a traffic jam. Then she noticed people running down the road toward her.
"I looked up to the left and saw the snowslide," said Fuki-Gim, 57, who lives in Manhattan but has skied in Utah for 22 winters. "I was going to get out of my car, but then in a split second I thought no, stay in the car."
That car, a rented Chevrolet Blazer, was lifted up in the second of the day's snowslides and carried off the road more than 350 feet into a ravine.
"They tell me mine is the very last one down there," Fuki-Gim said.
Early estimates indicate the slide was approximately one-half mile wide and 30 feet deep, said Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Peggy Faulkner. Avalanche forecasters on the scene said the slide dropped about 200 feet, Faulkner said.
The area of the slide, known as the White Pine chutes, is about 2.5 miles from the mouth of the canyon. Avalanche control crews have been firing cannons and setting charges in the chutes all winter but had seen very little snow come down, said Larkin, who supervises the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue unit.
The combination of a heavy snowpack and warm temperatures made the danger of a slide particularly high Saturday, Larkin said. Temperatures at Snowbird reached 45 degrees Saturday.
"We were afraid it would happen, we just didn't know it would happen so fast," he said. "It's a pile of snow that's unbelievable."
Crews at both Snowbird and Alta told the Deseret News they had not done avalanche control work in the White Pine chutes Saturday morning.
The slide put even rescuers at tremendous risk, Larkin said. Three slides came down during the course of the rescue effort, sending those on the scene scurrying for cover, he said. One slide pushed a Utah Department of Transportation car into a ravine and sent two UDOT workers on a ride through the rolling snow.
"I guess they swam through it," Larkin said. "I've never been so scared in my whole life."
Fuki-Gim stayed calm even as the snow lifted her car and pushed her down the hill. "I tumbled," she said. "I just felt I cannot die. I have to survive."
Survive in order to get back to her husband, Benjamin Gim, who had a serious heart operation last year and is still recovering. He was at home alone when his wife was caught in the avalanche and still didn't know what had happened to her.
Fuki-Gim's car landed upright but was buried in snow up to the windows. After a deep breath and two tries, she was able to roll down her window and crawl out into the snow. The first thing she did was try to help others.
Yulen Hickcox, 23, of Sandy, and Blackner were trapped in their car nearby. Blackner was seriously injured but was reported in stable condition late Saturday. Another man, who Fuki-Gim thought was a ski patrol member, was buried in snow up to his neck. She started digging at the snow with her hands.
"Then I went to my car and got a ski out and dug him out," she said. "He said if he could get out, he could help the other people."
Fuki-Gim went back to her car and got the travel bag for her skis. She tried to use that to cover Blackner and keep him warm while they waited for help to arrive.
"It didn't occur to me to leave. You've got to help," she said. "I worked for the airline. We were always trained to be ready for an emergency."
It was that training that helped her stay calm and go to the aid of others, she said.
"I am not that horrified or upset," she said calmly. "You don't know what will happen in life. You have to take it one day at a time. Today was just a surprising day."
But Fuki-Gim said it was also a lucky day. "Life is very precious," she said. "I am lucky I'm alive."