A Romanian hiker who lost his life high on Mount Rainier lay down in the snow and used his body's warmth to save his wife and a friend from the 70-mph winds of a freak June blizzard, national park officials say.
When it became obvious the trio of friends could not find their way back to base camp in whiteout conditions, they dug a snow trench with their hands. Then 31-year-old Eduard Burceag lay down on the snow and his wife and a friend lay on top of him. Later, when they begged him to switch places, Burceag refused, saying he was OK.
"In doing so, he probably saved their lives," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said Thursday.
Mariana Burceag, also 31, survived the storm, as did the couple's good friend, Daniel Vlad, 34. All three of the hikers were from Romania.
Kevin Hammonds, 28, who was the National Park Service ranger in charge of rescue operations on duty when the call came in at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to the Camp Muir base camp, described the storm as the worst he had ever seen.
Hammonds and a fellow ranger, Joe Franklin, readied a search party to go at first light.
At about 5:30 a.m., Franklin was checking the horizon for any clues to the location of the missing hikers, who all lived in a suburb of Seattle.
He saw what looked like a boulder in an unusual spot on the snowfield, then took a closer look with binoculars and realized the shape was moving.
Hammonds grabbed two mountain guides who had stayed the night at Camp Muir, at the 10,000 foot level of the 14,410-foot mountain, and headed out toward Vlad. Walking through knee-deep, blowing snow, it took about 10 minutes to meet him halfway.
One of the guides helped Vlad back to Camp Muir after he directed Hammonds and Eben Reckord of International Mountain Guides toward Mariana and Eduard Burceag.
Mariana Burceag was conscious but not coherent, said Hammonds.
When they turned to check her husband, they found Eduard Burceag unconscious, and they couldn't find a pulse.
"The two of us had to make a decision that she needed our immediate attention," Hammonds said. They put a second down jacket on Mariana Burceag, put her in a sleeping bag and onto a sleeping pad, covered her with a small tent and started to drag the whole package toward Camp Muir.
They only got about 100 feet before realizing they needed more help. Four more guides answered their call with oxygen, another sleeping bag and a real sled. It took another hour for six people to get Mariana Burceag to shelter.
Then the rescuers turned around and went back for Eduard Burceag. Perhaps another hour passed before he made it to shelter; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Hammonds said the three were experienced hikers — both Eduard Burceag and Vlad had summited Rainier in the past — and were dressed properly for a spring hike in warm winter jackets, wool hats and gloves and good boots.
Thick clouds prevented a helicopter evacuation later Tuesday. An Army chopper airlifted Mariana Burceag and Vlad from the peak Wednesday morning. They were treated for frostbite at a Seattle hospital and released. Eduard Burceag's body was brought down the mountain on a sled Wednesday afternoon.
'His children needed a lot of their mother'
Reached by telephone in Romania, Eduard Burceag's brother Cristian told The Seattle Times that his older brother moved to America eight years ago.
Eduard Burceag worked for Active Voice, a Seattle-based company that specializes in helping companies transition from voice mail to computer communications and messaging.
Cristian Burceag said he was not surprised his brother died shielding his wife from the blizzard.
"I'm sure he would do that. He knew very well that his children needed a lot of their mother and that was the main thing in his life," he said.