Avalanche Survivor Describes ‘Unnerving’ Experience of Being Buried

Jan 25, 2012 10:11am

The Washington state man who survived an avalanche thanks to the quick actions of his fellow snowmobile riders was so immobilized by the snow that he thought one of the 500 pound snowmobile machines was pinning him down.

“The whole time I didn’t realize that the avalanche had broken through,” John Swanson, of Lynwood, Wash., said today on “Good Morning America.”

“I actually thought that Russell’s  snowmobile was what landed on me and was holding me face down in the snow,” he said, referring to a friend and fellow rider.

Swanson was out with friends for a snowmobile ride in the white powder of Washington’s Stampede Pass mountain range Sunday when the after-effect of a fellow snowmobiler cruising above him cut an avalanche loose. The cascading snow buried him.

“You’re face down and you’re buried in the snow and just physically cannot move,” Swanson told “GMA,” alongside Warren Woerner, another friend and rescuer who captured the dramatic rescue on video with a camera attached to his helmet.

“It’s an uneasy feeling and something you don’t really think.  You figure you can wiggle this or wiggle that,” Swanson said.  “Not being able to move anything is pretty uncomforting.”

Swanson said he heard the screams of fellow riders, like Woerner, yelling at him to look out, but was unaware of what was happening.

The real-time, unedited video, captured by Woerner’s camera and posted on YouTube, shows the snow envelop Swanson.  It also show his fellow riders drop their own snowmobiles and run to their friend.

“When I saw the avalanche break free, I knew just to watch for where he ended up,” Woerner said.  “You don’t always end up in an avalanche where you think that person will be.”

Woerner and the others began frantically digging by hand, moving first to free Swanson’s face, to clear his airways, then digging out his shoulders and and the rest of his body.

“I knew that these guys were looking,” Swanson said.  “It quickly becomes a reality that time is of the essence when you’re there, and the fact that somebody is going to have to dig you out and rescue you.”

“It’s unnerving to say the least,” he said.

Elite avalanche rescuers contacted by ABC News say the men’s adherence to the most important rule when outdoors in the winter – traveling with a partner – saved Swanson, who would have suffocated within minutes without the quick work of his friends.

“We’re fortunate that we didn’t have to probe for him, that he was where Russell [a fellow snowmobiler] started digging,” Woerner said.  “He was right there.  All circumstances were very fortunate that John walked away from that.”

The avalanche is not the first time that Swanson has been fortunate to walk away from a near-death experience.  Fifteen years ago he spent six weeks in a coma after being engulfed in flames while doing repair work on his car.

In this case, Swanson received no major injuries and was able to recover at home.  The other snowmobilers, Woerner included, were also wearing protective gear and received no injuries in the avalanche.

“The video probably doesn’t show it as much snow as there was, as deep as it was, or as vast as the hillside is,” Swanson said.  “It was unnerving to say the least.”

 

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