Emergency vehicles. L.A. County, Riverside, Pasadena, San Diego County, Santa Fe Springs, Urban Search and Rescue. Mammoth and Bishop. Parked on Forest Trail from the Village to Hillside. A Caltrans officer at the intersection of Forest Trail and Minaret, blocking the road.
Can I go up?
“This isn’t my scene,” the officer tells me. “You’ll have to find MLPD and ask them.”
So I walk. Past the fire trucks and other, stubbier red vehicles that blink bright lights and write that they’re from somewhere else. Toward the top of Hillside. The Val D’isere Condos. The unit above unit 8, had collapsed around 9:23 a.m. Wednesday morning, after an explosion which could be heard in Old Mammoth.
Past a man with a camera and a telescopic lens, like he’s baseline at a Lakers game and not a disaster.
Past patches of first responders – sheriff’s, firefighters, and cops from out of town, who’ve been roped up to Mammoth by our declaration of emergency because the snow keeps falling. Hard.
At the scene, there are splinters. Of roofs and walls and wood beams and glass windows. Tufts of insulation and bits of sticks and pine needles scattered on the ground. Everything the condo coughed up when it collapsed, and more.
The first responders cradle a victim swaddled in green flannel – rescued last. They place the victim on a gurney. The victim’s head is free and looks around the crowd of uniformed people. Dazed in shock with a dirt-caked face, or dried blood, and hair full of dust, which seems to hold like hairspray. Looking, still.
Some responders wheel the gurney down the hill. The other responders don’t think anybody else is in there, and they’re right. But they keep looking, just in case. A man with a shirt that reads “SHERIFF” – Fred, who works for the Emergency Operations Bureau – calls for his team. The adrenaline, the rescue, the relief seems to shake his voice. His team comes, they huddle, he says something to them – probably “good work,” probably “I’m proud,” probably “we did it.” He offers us – me and the few civilians standing near the scene – some donuts. Please. Have some. Like the weight of what he might’ve seen within the building will disappear if we take one.
Here are the official facts of the incident, released by the Town of Mammoth Lakes and its police department.
There was an explosion in the 200 block of Hillside Drive (Val D’isere Condominiums).The cause of the collapse – propane tank exploded, gas leak into the condo caused the unit to explode, the condo’s snow load collapsed the roof onto the propane tank which then exploded, a fourth option – is still under investigation. Regardless, the building collapsed.
Five victims. Two complex workers, one buried under debris and snow, one free. Both were taken to Mammoth Hospital. Two other victims, a wife and son, were trapped in the residence. The son was rescued from the bedroom area and taken to Mammoth Hospital. The wife was found in the kitchen and transported to Sierra Lifeflight at the Mammoth Yosemite Airport. Another male victim was transported to Mammoth Hospital. Of the four males, two sustained moderate injuries, and two sustained minor injuries.
An official list of the responding agencies: Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District, Mono County EMS, Bishop Fire Department, Santa Fe Springs Fire Department, Pasadena Fire Department, CAL FIRE, San Diego Fire Department, Riverside County Fire, Sierra Lifelight, Mammoth Lakes Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s, CAL OES, Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol (with patrol dog Duke), and Eastside K-9s.
Laurie Romanak – a Culver City local visiting Mammoth – was in the unit below the one that collapsed with her husband John Romanak, Steve Wyngard, Jake Wyngard, and Cliff Merlo, MD.
“We were about to walk out the door in five minutes and hit the slopes,” Romanak said. Then, she heard a massive bang. “My husband and I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “The whole place shook.” Laurie Romanak was standing in front of a large picture window when she felt the blast. “I thought I was going to die,” she said. That the window would break, the snow would pour in, and she would be buried.
Their windows didn’t shatter, but the front door of their unit flew open. Outside – where they would have been had they woken up five minutes earlier – debris flew. Boards, gutters, nails. Shattered glass that blew through the front doorway and covered the condo stairs.
John Romanak ran to the Val D’isere manager’s unit. He heard a worker yelling for help. Saw that he was buried up to his shoulders in snow, face down, pinned by a 2 by 12. He ran inside to get shovels and send Cliff and the Wyngards to dig. Someone called 911. John Romanak went to the parking lot in order to guide first responders to the scene because the high snow banks made it difficult to find.
Jake Wyngard didn’t have time to put on pants. He threw on his boots and went in his longjohns to dig with his father Steve Wyngard, Merlo, and the trapped man’s co-worker. Outside, the smell of propane and the sound of a still-running snowblower mixed with splintered lumber and the anxiety over the potential of another blast and electrical dangers.
Together, the men dug through the packed snow with plastic shovels. They found a pry bar. Jake Wyngard and the coworker used the bar to lift the beam while Steve Wyngard and Cliff pulled the worker from the debris. During their rescue, the men could hear the trapped son inside the condo shout for help, shout that his mother was bleeding.
Search and rescue arrived shortly after the men freed the worker.
“We couldn’t get back into our unit for many hours,” said Steve Wyngard. They got lunch, came back, and were allowed a supervised entrance into their unit. “But at the same time, the worker’s partner was there who was helping us dig [the worker] out, and he came up and gave me a big hug,” said Steve Wyngard. That moment “made everything worth it,” he explained.
This winter has been record breaking, with a base depth of 252 inches and a total snowfall of 664 inches as of March 22nd.
Such snowfall creates emergencies. If propane tanks aren’t properly cleared, they can explode and cause major damage. If roofs are not cleared, they can collapse and cause major damage.
A cubic foot of snow weighs about 20 pounds on average. More when it is Sierra cement.
The average roof can withstand about 20 pounds per cubic foot. That’s according to americaschoiceroofing.com.
A report from CAL FIRE, reposted by the Mammoth Lakes Police Department Facebook Page, writes that responders for CAL FIRE San Luis Obispo Unit Cuesta Conservation Camp – who’ve been helping clear snow in town, have had to clear a “minimum of 15 feet of snow in most areas to reach propane tanks and fire hydrants.”
And more remain buried and impossible to find. Some belong to second homeowners who haven’t been able to book snow removal. Others belong to those who can’t remove the snow themselves. To find out more information on how to get your snow removed, visit townofmammothlakes.ca.gov.
At a Mammoth Lakes Town Council Special Meeting Wednesday evening, Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District Fire Chief Ales Tomaier said that technicians from service companies like Eastern Sierra Propane and Southern California Edison need to be available to the Mammoth Lakes community 24/7. Stationed in Mammoth Lakes, so that if someone has a propane problem, someone can come right away.
“If you have a tank,” said Tomaier, “dig it out. If you don’t have a tank, work on the side of your house… [this is] ultimately a prevention issue.”
Deputy Chief Robert Harris from L.A. County – a legend in the urban search and rescue game – spoke to Town Council on Wednesday, too. “My professional opinion: there’s a lot of risk out there, and I’m just concerned,” he said. Concerned about the roof collapse threats. Concerned about gas emergencies. Concerned about the sheer amount of snow that has disappeared tanks and structures, that veils the sources of gas leaks.
“Me being here is just to stress that this is an event your community will be faced with for the foreseeable future,” said Harris.