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Two U.S. Students Freeze to Death on Alpine Ski Trip

November 20, 1995

GRENOBLE, France (AP) _ It was supposed to be a weekend of fun _ seven college friends on an Alpine ski trip near the Italian border. But a wrong turn, a blizzard and inadequate clothing turned it into calamity.

After a terrifying night stranded in the storm, two students perished and four others remained hospitalized Sunday in serious condition, suffering from hypothermia; their body temperatures had dropped to about 86 degrees. Two have frostbite.

The seven, all Americans and juniors at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, were studying in Luxembourg.

Brent VanHala, the only one to escape unharmed, hiked out into the snow seeking help after the blizzard stranded the group on a mountain near Tignes, on the France-Italy border.

``It was after I left that they died,″ VanHala, 21, said Sunday from his hotel in Tignes.

The group was ill-equipped for the trip up the 8,000-foot Grande-Motte mountain, wearing jeans and sweaters instead of ski suits, the ski slope manager said.

After they strayed from the marked trail, a blizzard hit, forcing them to spend the night in the shelter of some over-hanging rocks.

The next morning at dawn, VanHala, of North Canton, Ohio, spotted the ski lift line in the distance and trekked down the slope for help. Rescuers rushed to the mountain by helicopter. By the time they arrived, Rebecca Andrew, 20, of Bath, Ohio, and Christopher Eggerton, 21, of Mansfield, Ohio, had frozen to death.

The students went undetected because they had left the trail, said Roger Bouzon, assistant manager of the Tignes ski slope. He also said the group left its equipment 300 yards from the edge of the trail and hiked 500 yards farther to spend the night.

``It was a wrong turn by us. There was no fault on the part of the operators,″ VanHala said. He refused to comment any further.

The four injured were recovering in three French hospitals Sunday.

Julie Chamberlain, 20, of Cincinnati, was hospitalized in Grenoble. Elisabeth Carey, 20, of Fairview Park, Ohio, was in nearby Moutiers. Christopher King, 20, of Naperville, Ill., and Jon Poploskie, 20, of Troy, Mich., were in the Bourg St.-Maurice clinic.

``I just kept thinking: `Am I going to make it?‴ Chamberlain, 20, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. ``But I put in my mind: `You are going to make it.‴

A groggy Poploskie said by telephone that he did not want to talk about his experience. But his mother, Ann Poploskie, said Jon called her from the hospital Saturday and told her what happened.

``He said they were skiing and apparently a tremendous storm came up,″ she said. ``They made one run down the mountain and they were fine and then they went up for the second run and it was a whiteout. ... The wind was so strong it just blew them over.

``My son is an outdoor person, he’s in very good physical shape but they just couldn’t stand in the wind,″ Mrs. Poploskie said.

She said her son, a certified lifeguard trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, tried with King to revive their two dead companions. ``They fought to keep everybody alive,″ she said.

During their ordeal, the students huddled behind the rocks to keep warm and shook their hands occasionally to make sure they still had feeling in them, Chamberlain told the Enquirer.

``We just hoped for the best,″ she said. ``We kept talking and tried to keep in good spirits.″

The Miami University program sends 75 students annually to study at the John E. Dolibois European Center in Luxembourg. The university is planning memorial services in Luxembourg and in Oxford, 31 miles northwest of Cincinnati.

``It was just one of those horrible natural disasters that could happen anywhere,″ said Elaine Kober, a staff assistant at the center. ``We’re all devastated by this.″

Eggerton’s mother, Linda, said she took comfort that her son did not die alone.

``It makes it a little easier knowing he was with good friends in the end,″ she said.

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