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Survivors recall bid to rescue avalanche victims

Survivors describe the "explosion" of snow that enveloped their cabin early Friday after a  massive slab of snow on in Idaho's Sawtooth Range broke free and roared through the cabin where they were sleeping.
Avalanche survivors Nicholas Kocan, left,  Kelby Rovig and his wife, Jenna Rovig, describe the "explosion" of snow that enveloped their family's cabin in central Idaho early Friday.Troy Maben / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Groggy from sleep, Nick Kocan thought the loud rumble and shock wave was just another gust of wind hitting the log cabin.

Just down the second-floor hallway, Jenna Rovig heard the crash and woke with a scream. She thought the bunk bed where she slept with her husband, Kelby, and their 5-year-old son was collapsing.

But when Kelby Rovig tried to push back the covers to climb out of bed, he realized the truth: Nearly 3 feet of snow covered their bedspread.

“It was just an explosion of snow,” he said.

A winter storm had dumped several feet of snow on central Idaho’s Soldier Mountain, about 80 miles east of Boise. Heavy winds loosened the new layer.

About 1:30 a.m. Friday, the load became too much. A slab broke free, the avalanche crashing into the cabin where Kocan, the Rovigs, Marsha Landolt and Robert Busch were sleeping.

Landolt, the 55-year-old dean of graduate studies at the University of Washington, and her husband, Busch, a 58-year-old aquatic health consultant in Seattle, were the only family members on the cabin’s main level.

Both were buried alive, asphyxiated by the compacted snow, according to the Camas County Sheriff’s Department.

No answer from downstairs
After the avalanche slammed into the cabin, Kelby Rovig pulled his 1-year-old daughter from her playpen. She and her brother were fine. The Rovigs ran to check on Kocan, 24, who was sleeping down the hall. Then all three adults called out for Landolt and Busch.

Neither Landolt — Kocan’s mother — nor Busch — Jenna Rovig’s father — answered. The stairwell was blocked, and the living room was filled with nearly 14 feet of snow.

Kocan and Kelby Rovig, 32, broke a window and leapt into the snow below.

“I grabbed a shovel and broke out the first window next to the door, and the first little snow that moved I saw my black lab’s nose stick out.” Kocan said during a news conference Monday, three days after the avalanche.

Kocan grabbed the dog by the scruff of the neck and pulled her free.

Then he and Kelby Rovig, armed with the shovels they’d found on the porch outside, began digging for Landolt and Busch.

They broke more windows. A chain saw snatched from the nearby shop allowed them to widen the opening, but then the chain snagged on a metal bedpost and derailed.

Meanwhile, Jenna Rovig and her two children huddled under a comforter upstairs, periodically searching through the dark and snow-filled rooms for anything that could help the men’s effort.

A fleece pullover. A comforter. One by one she lobbed them out the window, calling to Kocan and her husband. Finally, she found a tiny flashlight and tossed it to her husband.

‘We needed more people’
“Our voice of reason was just above us,” Kelby Rovig said Monday, looking at his wife. “She told us we needed more people to help.”

Kelby Rovig grabbed the light and strapped snowshoes on over his socks, then started the short hike to a neighbor’s home. Kocan kept digging at the cement-like snow, the handle of his shovel coated with ice and blood.

“I found the bedspread on the bed and by pulling on that was able to uncover the legs and torso of my mother,” Kocan said. “But I couldn’t uncover any more because of the tightness of the snow.

“I realized at that point from pushing, pinching, trying to get any response and the color of her skin, I knew at that point it was over,” he said.

There was no sign of Busch. Kocan, who had chipped a bone in his ankle and cut his head at some point during the night, could hardly see through the blood coating his glasses. He called up to Jenna Rovig, telling her their nearly 90 minute effort had been fruitless, and climbed into Busch’s truck to warm up.

With her husband seeking help and Kocan in the pickup, Jenna Rovig felt very alone.

“Our golden retriever usually sleeps downstairs and occasionally I could hear him moaning and scratching,” she said. “It was coming up the chimney flue.”

A musical distraction
But as the hours wore on, the moans were less frequent. She realized the dog must have died. To distract her children, she asked 5-year-old Tucker to lead them in his favorite songs. And she prayed.

“I remember saying out loud, ’Daddy, just help me, just keep us strong,”’ said Jenna Rovig, 30. “And I think that helped.”

Finally, Kelby Rovig returned. Neighbors had called search and rescue and given him warm clothes. He got a ladder, and helped his wife and the children down. They huddled in the nearby shop, where Kocan had built a fire, until emergency workers arrived.

The crew hustled Kocan and Kelby Rovig into a Snowcat — a large vehicle on treads for traveling over deep snow — and then to a waiting ambulance. They were treated for frostbite, hypothermia, cuts and sprains. Jenna and the children followed, while the search and rescue crew began working to recover Landolt’s and Busch’s bodies from the avalanche.

The debris field around the cabin was nearly 200 yards wide and 15 feet deep in places, said Kyle Davenport, who assisted the search and rescue team.

After the bodies were found, workers started looking for anything the family might need — clothes, car keys, the children’s favorite toys. Around noon, they heard something strange. The golden retriever was barking from beneath the snow.

The animal had been sleeping in front of the fireplace, and the rushing snow pushed him through the glass screen and into the chimney, where he could breathe. Workers rescued the frightened dog and reunited him with little Tucker.

‘He doesn't like the snow much anymore’
“He has some severe burns to his paws and to his tail,” said Jenna Rovig. “He doesn’t like the snow much anymore, but he loves being home with Tucker.”

The family is not sure yet what will happen to the cabin or the property near the Sawtooth National Forest. It was always filled with happy memories, and Jenna Rovig and her sister, Jodi Wright, spent many winters sledding down what became the avalanche path.

Busch and Landolt had planned to move to the cabin once they retired and had spent thousands of dollars protecting the property against wildfire. Avalanche danger never crossed their mind, Wright said.

“Dad was taken from his heaven on Earth,” said Wright, who wasn’t at the cabin that night because of poor driving conditions. “Snowshoeing, puttering in the shop and playing with the grandkids ... those are some of our favorite memories.”