Life Flight rescuers could see Saturday’s Mill Creek avalanche ‘was a dire situation,’ pilot says

Working for hours, the team rescued three of the four survivors; four skiers were killed.

(Screen grab) A screen grab image from Fox 13 footage of an Intermountain Life Flight helicopter crew that responded to Saturday's deadly avalanche in Mill Creek Canyon. Fox 13 is a reporting parter of The Salt Lake Tribune.

As an Intermountain Life Flight helicopter reached Wilson Glade in Mill Creek Canyon Saturday, pilot Richard Dobson and others scanned the mountainside where eight skiers had been caught in an avalanche.

It took them six or seven minutes to locate some of the survivors, he said. Dobson spotted four people along a tree line; one was conducting CPR on one of the skiers.

“At that point,” Dobson said, “we knew that the situation was a dire situation.”

The victim who was receiving CPR did not survive, along with three others. The skiers who died have been identified as Sarah Moughamian, 29, of Sandy, and Louis Holian, 26, Stephanie Hopkins, 26, and Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, 23, all of Salt Lake City.

The avalanche was one of the most deadly in the era of modern recreation in Utah, matching the four people killed when a skier-triggered avalanche struck Gold Basin near Moab in 1992.

Four skiers were able to dig themselves out of the Mill Creek slide Saturday, as well as their companions who did not survive. They had been skiing in a group of five and a group of three; two from each group were killed.

Life Flight paramedic Rick Black spent nearly two hours being hoisted down from and up to the helicopter, as he helped retrieve three of the four survivors. All four were men between ages 23 and 38, officials said.

Because of the loud noise of the helicopter and the gear he was wearing, Black mostly communicated with the survivors through hand gestures. But he could see how affected they were by the disaster, he said.

“You had a group of individuals that started out — it’s a beautiful morning, you’re with friends, and then without warning, it turns out to be the worst day of their lives,” Black said.

“It was obviously a real traumatic experience for those individuals,” he said. “And I’m not sure they had the capability of making it down [the mountain] on their own.”

The men Black helped hoist up had mostly minor injuries, although one was hypothermic.

Wilson Glade is adjacent to Alexander Basin, a steep bowl below Mill Creek’s divide with Big Cottonwood Canyon, under Wilson Peak.

Dobson was unable to land the helicopter due to the conditions there, so the team first diverted to Brighton Ski Resort to pick up two members from Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.

With their help, the Life Flight team was able to extract the three survivors in the group they had spotted.

A Department of Public Safety helicopter extracted the fourth survivor.

Because of the added help and expertise of the backcountry rescuers, who evaluated the conditions from the ground before any extractions began, the Life Flight team wasn’t concerned about the possibility of another avalanche as it worked, Dobson and Black said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Search and rescue crews respond to the top of Mill Creek Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, where four skiers died in an avalanche near Wilson Peak.

Although Saturday’s avalanche was among the worst in modern recreation history in Utah, the rescue wasn’t unusually complicated, Black said. “Every incident is different — every situation does come with unique challenges,” he said.

Intermountain Life Flight is the only civilian air medical program in the U.S. authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to perform helicopter hoist rescues

Dobson and Black said Saturday’s effort showed the quality of Utah’s system for responding to backcountry emergencies.

Along with Life Flight and Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, the rescue and recovery effort spread over Saturday and Sunday included Salt Lake County Search and Rescue, Unified Fire Authority, Unified Police, Utah Department of Public Safety, Utah State Fire Marshal, U.S. Forest Service and Brighton, Solitude and Alta ski resorts.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and Mayor Jenny Wilson talk with Search and Rescue Commander Wayne Bassham, in red, and left to right, Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter team pilot Luke Bowman, tactical flight operators Wyatt Weber and Nick Napierski in Mill Creek Canyon on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2021, as the team prepares to recover the bodies of four skiers who died in an avalanche near Wilson Peak.

“We are all part of a system that works for all of us,” Dobson said.

After survivors are safe, he said, “we try as best we can, once we know it’s a recovery effort, [with] everything kind of scaled back,” he said. “We just slowed things down, just trying not to jeopardize or rush in, where we’re overlooking safety. That was the main part at that time, to keep all involved safe.”