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Three Still Missing After Utah Avalanche

December 28, 2003

PROVO, Utah (AP) _ Trudging through snow far deeper than they expected, rescue crews Saturday searched for three snowboarders feared dead in an avalanche, but found no trace of them.

The search over 10 acres covered with more than 16 feet of snow was exhausting, and not just for humans: Some of the rescue dogs’ hind legs were rubbed raw by ice as they tried to detect the scents of the young men lost Friday in a backcountry canyon in northern Utah.

Search crews ``are putting these 10-to-12 foot poles down, and they are not hitting bottom,″ Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said. At times, the poles couldn’t reach the ground even after rescue crews dug holes six feet deep in the snow, which had a consistency compared to wet cement.

``So far, they have not found any exterior clues ... things like gloves, jackets, snowboards, those kinds of things,″ said John Valentine, a Utah state senator who is a volunteer dog handler helping in the search.

Rod Newberry, 20, Adam Merz, 18, and Mike Hebert, 19, had been snowboarding with two friends when the avalanche swept down Provo Canyon Friday afternoon. Their friends survived, but Newberry, Merz and Hebert were gone.

Explosives were dropped by helicopter and set off in the canyon Saturday morning to break up potential snow slides so search teams could safely reach the area.

Volunteers from six counties were expected to offer fresh help Sunday. If the men are not found Sunday, Tracy said the recovery operation would be reassessed.

Family and friends of the missing men wandered in and out of a lodge serving as the command center Saturday, consoling each other, crying at times.

``They realize they are dealing with a recovery,″ said Craig Knight, a friend of Hebert and Merz who was serving as a spokesman for the families.

One of the survivors, Matt Long, was led back up the mountainside late Saturday afternoon to assist in the search, which ended for the day after sundown Saturday.

Knight said the missing men grew up together in Utah County and had gone to the canyon Friday morning for a day of snowboarding.

``They liked to play, and they played hard,″ he said.

A snowshoer reported the avalanche Friday afternoon in the Aspen Grove area of Provo Canyon, about a mile north of Sundance ski resort, Utah County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dennis Harris said. The area is considered backcountry and has no avalanche control.

Dell Brown, who was snowshoeing with his family, said he and his wife fell to the ground and covered their two small children after the first slide. He said he saw one survivor and heard voices and called 911 before the second slide hit.

``We’re just very grateful for our safety,″ said Brown, whose voice quivered with emotion as he recounted the events. ``Each of those three slides, we were certain our lives were over.″

Long, 18, was buried to his chest in snow but dug himself out. Another snowboarder, J.D. Settle, 20, was completely buried but was rescued by a bystander and escaped with only a knee injury.

The snowboarders were swept a half mile down a narrow chute above Aspen Grove. Two smaller avalanches followed, Tracy said.

Two other groups of skiers or snowboarders also were caught in the main avalanche, but both managed to get out.

The avalanche hit near the end of a storm that dumped 29 inches of snow in the Sundance area in 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service.

It appeared the main avalanche broke away at the top of the chute and that none of the skiers or snowboarders appeared to have triggered it, Tracy said.

None of the snowboarders carried standard avalanche safety equipment such as radio transmitters, shovels or probe poles, Tracy said.