MISSOULA — An avalanche that swept down Mount Jumbo shortly after 4 p.m. Friday demolished a two-story house in the lower Rattlesnake and buried three people, all of whom were pulled from the snow and wreckage alive.
Snowboarders who were on the slope above the slide were reportedly interviewed and released by law enforcement officers. It was not disclosed if they’re believed to have caused the avalanche, which roared down a steep, narrow gorge and down Holly Street before finally stopping in the middle of Van Buren.
Rescuers found and extricated an 8-year-old boy from the deep snow after more than an hour of frantic searching by some 50 emergency responders with avalanche probes, as well as shovel-wielding volunteers.
The boy had apparently been playing outside a home at the southeast corner of Van Buren and Holly when the slide struck. He was found buried under snow between the house and a high wooden fence roughly 10 feet away.
A smattering of applause broke out as the boy was carried by stretcher to an ambulance. He was admitted to St. Patrick Hospital.
An hour later, as frigid daylong winds and swirling snow continued to buffet the valley, an elderly man was located and rescued from the remains of the house at 1440 Harrison, a north-south street that runs parallel to Van Buren at the western foot of Jumbo.
He was responsive and appeared to have no broken bones, according to a rescuer who said a fallen chimney had created an air pocket roughly 5 feet by 2 feet that saved the man from suffocation. Neighbors identified him as Fred Allendorf, a retired University of Montana professor who taught genetics and conservation biology.
Night fell and portable floodlights were trucked in to illuminate the search site as a trained avalanche crew shoveled through the wreckage. Another hour passed and a woman was pulled from the ruins of the house. She lay in what a law enforcement officer on the scene said was a similar air hole. Incredibly, she too was breathing.
The woman was en route to the hospital at 7:20 p.m., more than three hours after the slide.
Neither Allendorf’s condition nor that of the rescued woman, his wife, Michel Colville, were released Friday night. A neighbor said the two-story home had been recently remodeled.
Jay Vigneault lives in the apartment next door.
“We were sitting there watching ‘Thor’ and all of a sudden we hear a rumbling,” a shaken Vigneault said as he watched the rescue efforts from the middle of Van Buren Street, where the avalanche finally came to rest. “I thought, ‘Oh, they’re bringing the plows up here.’ But that’s not a plow when the whole house shakes.”
“We’ve got snow in our back closet, so we’re extremely lucky,” Vigneault added.
Cheryl McMillan, who lives on Harrison Street a couple houses down from the Allendorf home, said she heard a boom but at first couldn’t identify its source.
“Then, when we looked again, we saw that their whole house was kind of no longer there, at least the top floor,” McMillan said.
She and her husband, Archie McMillan, have lived in the neighborhood for 31 years, and they never have seen an avalanche. “Never ever ever ever.”
Kelly Haroldson has a laundromat in a cluster of three houses across Holly Street, just north of the demolished home.
“I felt the boom and the rattle. It took out the gas furnace, so we have gas leaks,” she said.
A strong odor of gas permeated the area throughout the rescue efforts. The avalanche nearly took out a power pole with a transformer, which wound up propped in a tree to the west.
NorthWestern Energy crews worked to find a gas main under Van Buren Street and to disconnect electricity in the near vicinity. The whipping wind and increasing cold made the evening uncomfortable for onlookers, search and rescue crews, city firemen and police and sheriff’s department officers. Sheriff Carl Ibsen helped direct traffic near the scene on Van Buren.
Rescuers threw boards and tree debris into a huge pile during their searches.
Late Friday night, the threat of further slides in one of Missoula’s snowiest winters in memory prompted Missoula police and sheriff’s department officers as well as fire personnel to go door to door in the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood between Richard and Holly streets.
They told residents of extremely unstable snow conditions and informed them of the risk of further avalanches.
“Although there is not a mandatory evacuation order in place, residents are encouraged to consider the risk when deciding whether or not to leave the area,” said Missoula Police Sgt. Travis Welsh.
The Missoula Sheriff’s Department issued an avalanche advisory for the city’s foothills, including Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, Waterworks Hill and other terrain north of Missoula.
“Recent heavy snow load and high winds are complicating the situation,” the advisory stated. “Any open snow-covered terrain that is steeper than 30 degrees is potentially hazardous.”
Recreation in those areas is also highly discouraged. The south zone of Mount Jumbo including the slide area is in the midst of its annual closure that began on Dec. 1 and ends on March 15.
Welsh said it was believed that all humans affected by the avalanche were accounted for, but personnel remained in the area into the night to monitor conditions and make sure there were no others missing.
The Red Cross established a shelter for any residents who may be displaced at Missoula’s First Baptist Church, 308 W. Pine St. Pruyn Veterinary Hospital at 2501 S. Russell St. offered to take in 10-15 cats and 10-15 dogs while their owners stay at the shelter.
On Jan. 9, 1993, an avalanche on the east side of Mount Jumbo carried an East Missoula boy to his death while he was hiking with three friends on the steep hillside.
Two of the other three boys were buried in the snow, but were rescued by the fourth youth, Matt Tripp.
Killed was 13-year-old Pershing Clarence “Percy” Phillips III. He was a student at Rattlesnake School.
In that case, the avalanche occurred on an afternoon when the temperature was near zero and winds were gusting between 30 and 50 mph.
A snow cornice above where the boys were hiking broke loose and swept down the mountain in a swath about a quarter-mile long.