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Survivor’s first glimpse of daylight: ‘That sky is fantastic!’

August 4, 1997

THREDBO, Australia (AP) _ Stuart and Sally Diver had just gone to bed when their ski chalet was crushed by a landslide. Suddenly, Stuart found himself trapped under tons of debris, struggling to keep his head above the icy waters of a stream. He held tightly to his wife.

``She was slipping out of his grip. He hung on desperately. ... But then there was another sudden rush of mud and water and she was swept out of his arms,″ said Bruce Tarrant, a rescue helicopter spokesman. ``He knows he lost his wife in that hellhole.″

Sixty-five hours later, rescuers finally reached the 30-year-old Diver _ the only known survivor of the landslide that buried 20 people in two ski lodges just before midnight Wednesday.

When rescuers brought Diver to the surface, the ski instructor got his first breath of fresh air and looked up at the twilight settling on the Snowy Mountains.

``That sky is fantastic!″ he told emergency workers.

From a hospital bed in Canberra on Sunday, Diver made his first public comments since his rescue, with his parents, Annette and Steve, by his side.

``I’d just like to thank everyone who was involved in my rescue ... and all the people who prayed for me and gave me so much support over the last couple of days,″ Diver said in a hoarse voice.

``It’s been overwhelming and I don’t think I’d have made it through without the involvement of all those people.″

Diver was moved out of intensive care, and frostbite on some toes of his left foot remained the most serious physical problem. Doctors said he may be able to leave the hospital within days.

Authorities have given varying figures on the number of bodies recovered so far. On Monday, they said nine had been found.

Of those caught in the slide, 17 were Australians, two were Americans and one was a New Zealander. The Americans were identified by the national newspaper The Australian as Mim and Mike Sodergren, 41 and 46, respectively, of Tahoe City, Calif.

Excavation efforts are now focused on bedrooms and a kitchen discovered in the rubble at the popular ski resort in New South Wales, about 185 miles south of Sydney.

Rescuers, including Diver’s brother, had almost given up hope of finding anyone alive early Saturday morning as they struggled with cutting tools that kept breaking down in the subfreezing Alpine night. Then firefighter Steve Hirst said he heard an ``uncommon″ noise in the lull.

``I lay on my stomach and made contact,″ he said. ``I yelled, `Rescue team working overhead, can anyone hear me?′ There was a murmur.″

Diver thought he was dreaming at first, then realized the voices were real.

``I can hear you!″ he yelled to emergency workers, who redoubled their tunneling through concrete slabs that once served as ski lodge flooring.

In a cavity barely wide enough for his body, Diver was at the mercy of icy water that ebbed and flowed from a spring, which is suspected of having eroded the hillside and caused the slide.

``He had to lift himself up to the very top of his height to keep his nose out of the water to stop from drowning,″ Police Inspector Charlie Sanderson said.

The next 12 hours were agonizing as workers broke up the slab above Diver, trying not to set off a crushing cave-in.

Three rescuers stayed underground and kept talking to Diver through the last hours of his ordeal. ``He told us that his wife had been pinned by something very heavy on the mattress next to him after the collapse,″ said Rob Killham, a fire rescue commander who stayed with Diver. ``He said that water was running through there and that his wife had drowned,″ Killham said.

To occupy himself during the last half-day, Diver, also a volunteer firefighter at the resort, made an imaginary trip around the world, said Dr. Richard Morris, who treated Diver.

Firefighter Geoff Courtney was the first to reach Diver, shaking hands between the two cement slabs that formed his tomb.

From then on Diver was fed oxygen and a liquid ``brew″ of glucose.

``He thought it was great,″ Killham said. ``He said, `Mix me another one.‴

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