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Breaking News: Avalanche in Colorado

Aired January 06, 2007 - 15:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. This is the story we are watching out of Colorado at least six people have been rescued from their cars after a massive avalanche moved in on Highway 40 outside Denver on Berthoud Pass. Loaders and bull blowers have been used to help move the snow, which is about 100 feet wide, and about 15 feet deep and they continue to search for other potential survivors, all this taking place with a blowing snow advisory in effect. Our Bonnie Schneider is in the Weather Center keeping an eye on that. How much of a hampering is this on efforts?
BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Fredricka, I think it will make things more difficult. Because the winds are so strong. I just checked from the Avalanche Organization and the latest wind gusts in the Berthoud Pass area have 40 miles per hour. So that's some strong winds. We're getting sustained winds out of the west at about 25 miles per hour. But the blowing snow advisory goes straight through Sunday. So we're looking at poor visibility straight into Sunday. And the possibility of maybe a couple more inches of snow that combined with strong winds will make for some very treacherous travel conditions. Particularly into the Berthoud Pass area we can take a look at the Google Earth image that we have, we can zoom into the area and fly in and take a look at where it is, just off of the I-70, I-40 interchange. Now Berthoud Pass is an area that people used to get to the ski resorts, like Winter Park, so it's a popular, very scenic route on the higher elevations to get to those ski resorts, and it is used just by people coming from the Denver area often travel and of course being a Saturday, people are headed to ski this weekend. We had new snow into the Foothills, and plenty of snow there, the only problem is there's been so much snow over the past couple of weeks that the weight of the snow from the efforts of melting and refreezing, you can see that the roads are still pretty treacherous out there and remember temperatures are pretty cold as well.

As we take a look at some of the current numbers, they're mainly into the 30s. Now with the higher elevations they are below freezing. We are getting some very cold air. Really this is the only spot in the country that the cold air is this right now, but especially towards the Foothills temperatures are below freezing. So that's why the high wind watch and the blowing snow advisory is important for travelers that were heading to these ski areas, and then for icy conditions and unfortunately poor visibility due to blowing snow. You can see some of that snow blowing in the video just to my right there.


WHITFIELD: And Bonnie, what we understand from officials is that at least two vehicles were buried by that snow and they were able to make the rescue of at least six people, but they continue to look for any other vehicles that may have been pushed by that snow that you're talking about. Meantime, we have received at least one image from an I-reporter out there that means you the viewer who has sent us either a still photo or video. In this case, a still photo of the Berthoud Pass that we are speaking of.

Now this is what it looked like on New Year's Day. All the snowfall there that you talk about, Bonnie that we've seen over the past couple of weeks. But we understand because of this avalanche, what you see there is the road of the pass. Well that road on US-40 is completely covered by this snow, 100 feet wide, 15 feet deep at least. That's just the snow in addition to all the debris that one of the officials was describing to us takes place from an avalanche, Bonnie. So you know, you're talking about these loaders and these blowers to come into the area to kind of push some of this snow so that these rescuers can see if any other vehicles that might be in jeopardy.

SCHNEIDER: When an avalanche happens, it does take whatever is in its path, so if there are loose trees from the strong winds that comes down with it, the tree branches and the debris that you mentioned. Looking at that I-report one of the things that's interesting to me is the varying height of the snow. Some of the trees are covered halfway up to their height, some are perfectly visible. That has to do with the blowing snow. The snow can be blowing about to where snowdrifts can be as high as five foot or as low as one foot, depending on where you are. So that's making up for fluctuating conditions as well.

WHITFIELD: It's deceiving, too, because when we looking at some of the live pictures power cam and other highway shots that we were looking at earlier, the skies don't look that threatening. In fact, there was a picture earlier where the sun was shining which leads to you believe that maybe some of that snow is melting. But you talked instead, there's a nice shot right there. You talked instead that we're talking about very frigid temperatures, so the snow melting not necessarily an issue right now.

SCHNEIDER: The snow will melt during the day due to that bright sunshine. Especially in Denver, we have partly cloudy conditions, but quickly after the dusk comes, temperatures drop, so any snow that melts during the day becomes a layer of ice on top of the snow, so it refreezes and remember the weight of the ice is going to be heavy. So it's heavy compacted snow. You were talking about the avalanche with 15 feet, that's a heavyweight to be lifting.

WHITFIELD: Yes, you have to wonder, too, you know, lots of different reasons why avalanches take place, in this case, we haven't heard any real explanations as yet. Can the blowing snow of these 40, 45 miles per hour winds that you speak of ever trigger an avalanche?

SCHNEIDER: It is possible. Often there is a human factor involved in avalanche, too. So it's hard to know exactly what was happening at that peak at that time, but the blowing snow definitely does not help things, because I mentioned, the blowing snow could knock down a very large tree for example and that could take down another tree right along with it. So that is causing a hindrance. And you can actually see the roads are clear according to our live pictures there now, but it is important to know there's also slush and ice still on the roads. So the roads are slick and the reason the blowing snow adviser is posted is for travelers, particularly those that were heading up to the ski resorts to watch out for icy roads tonight and tomorrow.

WHITFIELD: Right and some roads are clear. We're looking at this c-dot image. We don't know what highway that is except we have heard for Highway 40, which is where this Berthoud Pass avalanche took, place, that highway is closed throughout the day. So if you are on either end of Highway 40 don't even think about trying to make your way towards that Berthoud Pass area because it will be closed for quite a while.

So again if you're just now joining us, a very sizable avalanche is the reason why U.S.-40 that I speak of is closed in the Berthoud Pass area. Pretty sizable avalanche measured by 100 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And when that avalanche occurred, covering a good part of the pass there, it also covered up at least two vehicles that officials were able to express to us, they were able to rescue at least six people. That's good news. And one of the people they rescued, they did have to take a to a hospital. The search continues, however, for any other vehicles that may have been pushed off the roadway or covered by that snow because of that avalanche taking place at about 10:30 Local Time, 12:30 Eastern Time. We're going to continue to watch this story. When we come back.


WHITFIELD: Hello, I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. We continue to watch the situation outside of Denver, Colorado. You're looking at various pictures that set the scene of the weather and some of the highway movement but the real problem is on U.S. 40 near the Berthoud Pass, which is where a massive avalanche has pushed a big amount of snow onto the pass and covered at least two vehicles. About snow measuring 100 feet wide and something like 15 feet deep, according to officials. Covering at least two vehicles. Rescuers were able to rescue six people, rescued them one person was injured and taken to nearby hospitals, but now they've got loaders as well as snow blowers in the area, trying to make sure there are no other vehicles that may be covered by this snow as a result of what is being described as a massive avalanche.

This highway is one that many people use to get to the ski resort areas, namely Winter Park for one. But officials we spoke to earlier are encouraged by the time in which this took place between 10:00 and 10:30 Colorado time. A lot of the skiers like to go through this roadway but early in the morning in order to get to those lifts at 7:00, 7:00 a.m., so they're hoping, many of these officials are hoping that there were very few people on the roadway at the time of this avalanche.

While it is typical for avalanches to take place in that area, it is not typical to have this size of snow. Blame in part a lot of the snow that that area has been getting over the past couple of weeks. Officials we talked to earlier say they're used to about two to three feet of snow to cover that pass as a result of avalanches. So this is indeed unusual. But they're dealing with it as best they can. Bonnie Schneider is in the Weather Center.


WHITFIELD: Blowing snow, also a big concern right now.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, it is. We have winds right now out of the west at 25 miles per hour, but gusts recently according to the Avalanche Organization have been report to be as strong as 40 miles per hour. That is some serious wind that can push the weight of the snow to varying heights of snowdrifts. Now remember we had two feet of snow a couple of weeks ago combined with another eight inches. Several more accumulated this week and now we have the strong winds, so really unfortunately that weight of the snow is going to be an issue and the varying heights of the snow due to those strong winds as well.

If we can have the director pull up GR 113 I can show you some of the latest Google Earth imagery right behind me. What that shows is exactly where Berthoud Pass is. It is kind of a route that people would take to some of the ski resorts. This Google Earth picture really shows you how Berthoud Pass is kind of in between the mountains there, right along the Foothills, really the problem is that people use this route quite frequently. It's a busy time. It's Saturday, people are heading to some of the ski resorts for the weekend due to the new snow. That gives you a perspective of where it sits right into the Colorado Foothills, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks so much, Bonnie.

We're going to continue to watch this story as rescuers there try to make sure there's no one else in danger from this avalanche. Sizable amount of snow that has pushed its way onto Berthoud Pass. We're going to take a short break for now.


WHITFIELD: We're watching this story, just outside of Denver; a massive avalanche has pushed a lot of snow onto US Highway 40. At least two vehicles were buried by that snow. But the good news is rescuers say they were able to rescue at least six people. And now they're searching for any other folks who may potentially be buried from that snow. Snow being measured 100 feet wide, 15 feet deep, a lot of snow.

An area called Berthoud Pass on US-40; they're used to avalanches, but usually pushing about two to three feet onto the pass. This time it's much more significant. But highway officials are encouraging everyone who is listening to this story that they have the equipment to push a lot of the snow out of the way to look for any other potential survivors.

Meantime, Kasey Burt is from Dawsonville, Georgia, and I understand Kasey that you and your family had actually passed through the Berthoud Pass. KASEY BURT, TRAVELING BACK TO DENVER (via telephone): We were not passing through, we were almost to the pass and they turned us around.

WHITFIELD: Oh really? What did you learn as they were turning you around?

BURT: Well when we turned around, they said there were four cars buried and two hanging off of a cliff. I don't know whether that's true or not, that's what we were told. They turned us around and said we had to go back, so we turned around we were up there before the roads were closed off or anybody was stopped it just had happened.

WHITFIELD: Did you get an idea or do you remember how many other vehicles may have been sharing the road with you?

BURT: Yes, ma'am. It was bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way from Denver, all the way up to Winter Park. It was bumper to bumper all the way in.

WHITFIELD: So when you got to that road block area and they did give you a little bit of information about the vehicles that were in trouble, what were your thoughts there because you don't have a whole lot of options, do you, to kind of get to your destination in that area?

BURT: Right. We were not able to get to our destination; we had to cancel reservations in Winter Park. We were thankful that we did not make it any further. Had we have been 15 minutes earlier. We may are been in the avalanche. There are ten of us traveling together, my mother and father and my kids and my brother and his children. We're just very thankful. They have not warned anybody about this.

WHITFIELD: You don't remember seeing any kind of advisories posted.

BURT: Nothing.

WHITFIELD: Have you been on this road before?

BURT: I have.

WHITFIELD: What do you recall about it?

BURT: It was wonderful. I love Denver, it's a great place and I love Winter Park. It's very curvy, very steep on one side of the road. When you're coming through the pass. It's beautiful, but it's really dangerous. So we were headed up yesterday, and the snowstorm hit and we weren't able to go and we were turned around yesterday and so that's why we was trying to turn around and go back today and it didn't happen. So we're very thankful.

WHITFIELD: Have you talked to anyone on the other side, perhaps anybody who already made it to Winter Park or perhaps when you cancelled your reservation, had you talked to anybody about what they're learning on the other side of this pass? BURT: All I've been told is we're not able to cancel our reservation. From what I'm understanding Winter Park is waving people on through. They're asking people to come on through. I don't understand that. That is the main reason that I called in, because they need to be giving out warnings and turning people away. But when you call the Chamber of Commerce your not getting any kind of warning at all.

WHITFIELD: What was the weather like when you were driving; did you see the blowing snow? I mean there's an advisory about serious winds?

BURT: Yes, ma'am, excuse me.

WHITFIELD: Did you feel that when you were driving?

BURT: Yes, I'm standing outside right now. 70, and the wind is blowing very hard right now. And it was blowing very hard when we were on our way up.

WHITFIELD: I know and your other ten friends and family members are really breathing a huge sigh of relief.

BURT: Absolutely. We're all OK. So everybody is in Dawsonville.

WHITFIELD: We're glad to hear that. Kasey Burt thanks so much for your time. We're glad to hear you and your family are fine. Kasey is explaining what her journey was like on US-40 before they were turned away as they approached that Berthoud Pass because the avalanche had already covered a good part of that the roadway. So they are among the lucky ones. But she describes, it was bumper to bumper on that road.

Now we understand, too, perhaps why highway officials are taking very seriously the possibilities of other vehicles that may, may be buried by snow. They know at least two were and they were able to rescue at least six people. Let's hope no one else is in danger.

Bonnie Schneider also in the Weather Center also keeping close tabs of this. Blowing snow has been a significant concern there. This high wind advisory could really impact the efforts of the rescuer rescuers, too, couldn't it?

SCHNEIDER: Yes and as we take a look at some of the latest weather conditions, we have overcast skies and haze reported. Winds right now gusting to 30 miles per hour in the Berthoud Pass region. But in the past couple of hours, we've seen wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour. Sustained winds out of the west are at 24 miles per hour. So very windy conditions with the weight of the snow. We're talking about snow that has not had a chance to melt yet. Even from the past storm when we saw two weeks ago when we had two feet of snow, we did have a couple of days where temperatures were warm but it really didn't melt the snow it is still very heavy, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks very much Bonnie. Bob Wilson with the Colorado Department of Transportation is on the line with us. You are the spokesperson or a spokesperson, Mr. Wilson. We just heard from one traveler who said that it was bumper to bumper on U.S. 40 when they were turned away after the avalanche. What can you tell us?

BOB WILSON, COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: Well, it would be bumper to bumper because we have closed the roadway down and U.S. 40 which is the road over Berthoud Pass is going to remain closed between Winter Park and Interstate 70 for the foreseeable future. Right now, we've had several cars that were buried by this avalanche. That was about 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep. The crews are saying that's the largest avalanche slide they've ever seen in those areas, it went down three chutes of what's known of the Stanley slide on the east side of Berthoud Pass.

WHITFIELD: When you say several vehicles, can you give me an idea about numbers? Because earlier we were reporting at least two. It sounds to me that you know of more?

WILSON: Actually I don't. I know at least two. I know at least seven people have been transported to the hospital. It's not a life flight situation; they've been transported via ambulance. There may be more. We're continuing to do probes through the avalanche area to make sure there are no more vehicles in that area. But we're hoping that we've gotten everybody out of there that were caught.

WHITFIELD: At what point, will you think you're pretty certain about other vehicles not being in danger?

WILSON: Well, once we get through all that entire area.

WHITFIELD: How long does that take?

WILSON: Well, it's all dependant. We were talking about the snow being 15 feet deep and 200 hundred feet wide. They're doing it as quickly as possible but in those kinds of conditions, when you're talking about deep snow, it can take some time.

WHITFIELD: So I'm wondering how many snow movers and blowers do you use to try to move 200 feet wide of snow and 15 feet deep when you have it out there?

WILSON: As many as necessary. We've got maintenance facilities that are real close by to there. It's not in like what you would call a desolate area from our maintenance crews since it is a mountain pass over the continental divide, maintenance crews are located very close to there. So we have several vehicles out there, plows and a lot of maintenance personnel out there working.

WHITFIELD: What about personnel, whether they be on skis or you know whether they are doing manual searches, you know, on their own without the kind of heavy snow moving equipment involved?

WILSON: I'm sorry; you cut out just for a second there.

WHITFIELD: Would you end up having a lot of rescuers on foot, doing real manual searches who are not using some of that heavy snow moving equipment? WILSON: Oh, yes. You would have both people that would be doing work manually and people using heavy equipment. So it's a combined effort.

WHITFIELD: You're going to be keeping Highway 40 closed throughout the day. What can you tell a lot of folks who are traveling in the area? What other routes are there to take or are you concerned about any other potential avalanches on other highways?

WILSON: Well, that's always a hazard at this time of year especially with the heavy snow we've got. We do shoot these slides on a regular basis; this one was shot recently on Tuesday. It's always a hazard traveling in the mountains in Colorado. But like the alternate route that you would be dealing with for to get around the Berthoud Pass closure would not go through an active slide area and that would be going through the Dillen Silverthorne area and then taking Highway 9 up to Cremling and then US Highway 40 back down and around into the Winter Park Grand County area.

WHITFIELD: Bob Wilson spokesperson with CDOT. Thanks so much for your time.

WILSON: You welcome.

WHITFIELD: And best of luck on your efforts there. Spencer Logon is with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and I understand Mr. Logan that you all also have a number of forecasters on the ground helping in the search or even recovery efforts.

SPENCER LOGON, COLORADO AVALANCHE INFORMATION (via telephone): Yes, we did. We had one of the our forecasters up on Berthoud Pass doing an avalanche class for search and rescue groups this morning so they got a very practical application of what they were learning.

WHITFIELD: What are you learning from them on the ground?

LOGON: I had a chance to talk to one of our forecasters it sounded like things have calmed down on the scene. It was a fairly large avalanche. The news reports so far have been fairly accurate. Three different piles, about 100 feet wide and up to 15 feet deep.

WHITFIELD: This is rather unusual, is it not, this size of an avalanche in that area? I understand from other experts that they're used to be a two to three feet of snow from an avalanche in this area, but 15 feet deep, pretty significant difference?

LOGON: This is a fairly large avalanche. Most of the time when we bring down avalanches this size, it's deliberately when the highway is closed a we're using explosives to control the danger.

WHITFIELD: Does the snow blowing that our weather center is reporting does that impact any kind of potential avalanches in that area?

LOGON: Certainly.

WHITFIELD: We're talking about 40 miles per hour winds being reported.

LOGON: That's probably what caused this avalanche. The winds pick upped this morning and we are expecting some avalanches just not our backcountry forecasts calls for avalanches under similar aspects.

WHITFIELD: So while you all were expecting avalanches, does a driver on the road, are they able to see any kind of advisories or are there notices up underscoring a heightened propensity of an avalanche in the area that they're in?

LOGON: There would not be like a variable message sign that would tell them. Most people on the highways don't think about avalanches because almost all the time they have been taken care of. You know the Department of Transportation has removed the danger.

WHITFIELD: Yes. And I'm just recalling driving on some of those roads towards ski resorts that sometimes there are like mesh fences that kind of catch the falling debris or even falling snow and so there's kind of that comfort zone that if you're on the road there you might be pretty of any kind of avalanche or falling snow or rocks?

LOGON: That's quite true. The majority of the time when you're traveling on the roads or you're in a ski area, you don't have to worry about avalanches, but it is a mountain environment and there's always some uncertainty.

WHITFIELD: All right. Spencer Logan, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, thanks so much for your time and best of luck on your team's efforts to try to get to any folks who might be in danger.

LOGON: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Darcy Morse is the communication manager at Winter Park Resort. Miss Morse, you know that a lot of folks on that highway traditionally are heading to your resort or some of the other neighboring ones. What are you telling people as they call to either get an idea of if they'll get through Highway 40 or if they need to cancel their reservation.

DARCY MORSE, WINTER PARK RESORT: You know, there are alternate ways of getting to Winter Park Resort from Denver or wherever else you're traveling. And that is as Bill said, from Highway 70 to 9, which is in Silverthorne to then Highway 40 and that would bring you back around from Winter Park or that will bring you from Winter Park back home.

WHITFIELD: How concerned are you about this avalanche? This is considered a massive avalanche by everyone's standards who we have been talking to, this not that typical. Usually you're talking about two to three feet. But instead we're talking about 100 feet wide, 15 feet deep.

MORSE: It is of some concern but Colorado Department of Transportation does extensive avalanche control so really we feel very confident in the level of avalanche protections that they are providing. This particular avalanche is certainly disconcerting for most, but I think that as we're being told they are doing everything in their power to get through this and make sure that everyone comes out safely.

WHITFIELD: So, about how many miles is Winter Park from this Berthoud Pass?

MORSE: Berthoud Pass, the avalanche probably was about approximately 20 miles away.

WHITFIELD: All right, so if there's an avalanche there at Berthoud Pass, are you concerned about avalanches there at Winter Park while people are skiing?

MORSE: We have our own extensive avalanche control through our ski patrollers, so no. That is, I mean, we...

WHITFIELD: So you're -- you know, your folks there are not able to ascertain whether the conditions are ripe where you are, about 20 miles away from this Berthoud Pass, whether conditions are ripe for an avalanche or anything similar in your area?

MORSE: No, our guests here certainly should feel very safe considering we would never let them out in an area that has the potential for an avalanche.

WHITFIELD: So, how about the winds there? There's a blowing snow advisory in effect, we're hearing that from our meteorologist that winds are being clocked at somewhere between, you know, 45 miles- per-hour and higher, in certain areas, would that impact conditions there at your ski resort? Would that make for any kind of dangerous conditions that you need to look out for?

MORSE: No, not in terms of dangerous conditions. We would certainly shut down any lift that would go into an exposed area where winds would be up to 45 miles-per-mile like they're projecting.

WHITFIELD: OK. All right. Darcy Morse, communication manager at Winter Park Resort, thanks so much.

MORSE: You're welcome.

WHITFIELD: So, once again, we're continuing to watch the situation, just about 60 miles west of Denver on Highway 40, massive avalanche is how it's being described, because we're talking about 100 to 200-feet wide of snow and 15 feet deep that has pushed its way onto this road. At least two vehicles were buried.

They have been able to rescue at least seven people, many of them have been transported to nearby hospitals, but right now, many teams are on the ground to try to survey whether there are any other vehicles that are buried. Let's hope not.

Bonnie Schneider in the Weather Center, this blowing snow advisory still in effect?

SCHNEIDER: Yes it is and it will continue straight through Sunday. And I want to talk be at dynamics of the wind and how that could cause an avalanche.

Right now we have very strong winds and we've had them for the morning, they actually picked up in intensity out of the west at 24 miles-per-hour. Now looking at the area, this is a Google Earth image and you can see the mountains, and here's Berthoud Pass, kind of right in between there along the mountains.

The winds are coming in from the west, so they're blowing up what we call the windward side of the mountain, blowing up and up and up on that snowpack, and then the snow gets deposited on the leeward side. But what happens is when you have heavy snowfall and strong winds it fluctuates quite a bit because you can get a blast of wind coming down and that could force the snow down, from the highest peak all the way down here, as it comes down the mountains. So, strong winds and heavy snow come together to create avalanche danger as the winds in this situation are coming in from the west, coming down the mountain.

And remember, that leeward side of the mountain is packed with heavy snow, two feet of snow from two weeks ago, combined with another half a foot in recent weeks. And then we still have blowing snow. Even right now, we could still see couple of inches of snow popping up into the region, kind of as it's redistributed, in the terms of weight.

And another factor to mention, as we've been watching our temperatures, they really have not warmed up a lot, since the increase of snowfall, two weeks ago, so you don't have a dramatic snow melt, but you do have that sunshine during the day that loosens the snow and melts the initial layer on the top and to some degree some bit below if as well. So that loosening also kind of shifts the weight about, that combined with the strong winds blowing in from the west. And we're seeing those winds gusting as high as 24 miles-per-hour, right now, sustained. Gusts have been up to 30 and a couple of hours ago, they were up to 40. So really, all these factors coming together really do create a dangerous situation right in the foothills, in this case right here in Colorado -- Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Bonnie. Thanks so much. We're going to take a short break. We're going to continue to look at the developments there outside of Denver with this massive avalanche when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. We are watching what could be potential rescue efforts taking place on Highway 40, just 60 miles west of Denver because of a massive avalanche that has pushed a number of vehicles, at least two vehicles that we know of, or at least that highway officials know of, off the highway, they were able to rescue at least six people, possibly even seven people, many of whom have been treated at nearby hospital.

But the concern right now is blowing snow, high winds and now a number of rescuers are on the ground to make sure of there are any other vehicles that have been buried or pushed by this snow, they want to try and get to them to be sure they can rescue any folks who may be trapped. Earlier, I spoke with a highway trooper, Eric Wynn of the Colorado State Patrol and he had this to say about what has been unfolding since about 10:30 this morning, Colorado time.


ERIC WYNN, COLORADO STATE PATROL: And the avalanche occurred shortly after 10:30 this morning. They have recovered two vehicles with six occupants, one of which was transported to an area hospital with injuries; the injuries are unknown at this time. They're going to continue the rescue effort up there to make sure there is no other vehicles that are involved, if there is, to get those vehicles or occupants out of there as quick as we can.

WHITFIELD: Now obviously we all know that you've had a number of snowstorms just within the past couple of weeks. So, in times like this were there a lot of warnings to a lot of travelers on these highways that the potential was great for avalanches?

WYNN: Well, at this time, I don't know how unsteady any of the mountain areas are as far as their accumulation with the snowfall. Generally, they do put out avalanche warnings in some of the mountain areas when they are aware of them depending on the potential of an avalanche occurring and also on the amount of snow they have up there.

It is correct the last three weeks, in a row, we have had a significant number of inches of snowfall in the Denver metropolitan area along throughout the state.

WHITFIELD: So CDOT is reporting that this avalanche was about 100 feet wide and 15 feet deep and that reportedly it not only buried vehicles but pushed some vehicles off the road. Is that correct?

WYNN: You know, as far as I know there were two vehicles that we were talking about where they did get the six occupants, and as far as how many other vehicles were involved, it's unknown at this time. You know, when you do have your avalanches, especially when you're dealing with this magnitude of an avalanche, not only does the snow come down but all the debris in the way of the snow. So you have rocks and trees that also accompany that snow coming down.

WHITFIELD: So we're talking about at least the snow being at least 15 feet deep on top of all that debris that you speak of, trying to locate any other vehicles that may indeed have been pushed off the roadway, I mean that's a colossal task. How do you do that?

WYNN: It is. You're going to have to have the (INAUDIBLE) Transportation (INAUDIBLE) have their equipment up there as far as front loaders and stuff like that, where they're going to actually have to remove some of the snow and just work their way in there to make sure that there's no other vehicles or any other people involved in this.

WHITFIELD: So is this highway blocked off or closed right now while you carry out these searches and, obviously, try to remove a lot of this snow that has covered the roadway? WYNN: It is. They expect the highway, U.S. 40 to remain closed for the rest of the day and whatever time it takes to get it cleared up and make sure that the snow is stable up there.

WHITFIELD: Now what about assistance from any other agencies or highway rescue groups, anything like that from the area that you'll be relying upon?

WYNN: At this time, I don't know what other agencies are involved. I know we do have in the state, we have Alpine Search and Rescue, generally are dispatch when we're dealing with avalanches and back country skiers and stuff like that, they're generally the rescue teams that go up there along with whatever county assistance we have from whatever agency in the county.

WHITFIELD: OK, and for the, at least, one injured and the six people who have been rescued, have you needed to Medevac that one injured person out of the area? How do you, you know, extricate these people from this area?

WYNN: Well, at this time, from my understanding, the that the one person that was injured was transported to an area hospital by ground ambulance.

WHITFIELD: OK, Colorado state patrol, Eric Wynn, thanks so much for the information.


WHITFIELD: And that interview was conducted earlier. Since that interview we have learned now that at least seven people have been rescued and more than one person has been transported to a hospital to look at their injuries sustained from this avalanche, covering at least two vehicles there, on Highway 4 the Berthoud Pass. We're going to have more on this story in a moment.


WHITFIELD: We are watching the result of a massive avalanche just west of Denver on Highway 40. Right now, Highway 40 is closed because highway and other rescue officials are dealing with about 100 feet wide of snow covering the Berthoud Pass and it's about 50 feet deep. They were already able to rescue at least seven people who were trapped in their vehicles that were covered by snow and/or pushed off the highway by this snow.

And now you've got Alpine Search and Rescue teams, you've got back country skiers, you've got loaders and even snow blowers that are being used to try to get to any other vehicles that could. And I really emphasize could, because I don't know, could be buried by the snow or pushed offer the highway.

Earlier we spoke with a traveler there on Highway 40, before they got to the area of the Berthoud Pass and then turned around. They say they were the lucky ones because they narrowly missed being in the path of that avalanche. Listen to Kasey Burt of Dawsonville, Georgia, who was in the Denver area.


KASEY BURT, TRAVELING BACK TO DENVER: When we turned around, they said there were four cars buried and two hanging off of a cliff, I don't know if that's true or not, that's just what we were told. And they turned us around and told us we had to go back. So, we turned around, we were up there before the roads were closed off or anybody was stopped. It just had happened.

WHITFIELD: OK, so did you get an idea or do you remember how many other vehicles may have been sharing the road with you?

BURT: Oh, yes, ma'am, it was bumper to bumper traffic all the way from Denver all the way up to Winter Park it was bumper to bumper all the way in.

WHITFIELD: So when you got to that roadblock area and they did give you a little bit of information about the vehicles that were in trouble, what were your thoughts there? Because you don't have a whole lot of options, do you, to kind of get to your destination in that area?

BURT: Right, we were not able to get to our destination. We had to actually cancel reservation in Winter Park. We turned around, though, and came back, we were thankful that we did not make it any further. Had we have been 15 minutes earlier, we may have been in the avalanche. And there were 10 of us traveling together -- my mother and father and my kids and my brother and his children, and we're just very thankful.

WHITFIELD: Yeah, I bet you are.

BURT: Denver has not warned anybody about this. I don't know what's going on, but...

WHITFIELD: You don't remember seeing any kinds of advisories posted.

BURT: Nothing, nothing.


WHITFIELD: Anything about potential avalanches (INAUDIBLE)?

BURT: No, ma'am. No, nothing.

WHITFIELD: OK, have you been on this road before? Have you travel this area before?

BURT: I have. Yes, ma'am, I've been on vacation.

WHITFIELD: And what do you recall about?

BURT: It was wonderful. I love Denver and I love Winter Park. It's very curvy, very steep on one side of the road when you're coming through the pass, it's beautiful, but it's really dangerous. So, we were headed up yesterday and the snowstorm hit and we weren't able to go and we were turned around and stayed yesterday and so that's why we was trying to turn around and go back today and it just didn't happen. So, we're very thankful.

WHITFIELD: Have you talked to anyone on the other side, perhaps anybody who already made it to Winter Park or perhaps when you cancelled your reservations, had you talked to anybody about what they're learning on the other side of the pass?

BURT: All that I've been told is that we're not able to cancel our reservations -- from what I'm understanding, Winter Park is waving people on through, they're asking people to come on through, and I don't understand that. That is the main reason that I called in because they need to be giving out warnings and turning people away, but when the camber of commerce, you're not getting any kind of a warning at all.

WHITFIELD: And so what was the weather like when you were driving did you, you know...

BURT: Beautiful.

WHITFIELD: ...see the blowing snow? I mean there's an advisory about, you know, serious wind.

BURT: The wind, yes, ma'am.

WHITFIELD: Did you feel that as you were driving?

BURT: Yes. As a matter of fact I'm standing outside now and I'm off of 70 and wind's blowing pretty hard here right now and it was blowing very hard, you know, whenever we were on our way up.

WHITFIELD: Yeah well, I know you and your other 10 friends and family member are really breathing a huge sigh of relief.

BURT: Absolutely. We're all OK to everybody in Dawsonville.

WHITFIELD: OK, and we are glad to hear that. And Kasey Burt, thanks so much for your time and glad that you and your family are fine.


WHITFIELD: And that was a conversation earlier. Rick Sanchez with me now. I spoke with Winter Park shortly thereafter that conversation, that's where Kasey was trying to get to, Winter Park, saying, you know what, the wind is kicking up, but our slopes are still open. There are alternate routes for folks who are trying to make their way if they can't get to the U.S. 40 way, go Highway 70 to nine and then back to U.S. 40 in order to get to Winter Park or any of the other ski resorts.

So, this still is a very big concern because most of the Highway 40 is closed around Berthoud Pass because of the avalanche. We're talking to you, right now, particularly because you have some level of expertise of that very area, you've been on U.S. 40.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN NEWS CORRESPONDENT: And what they're talking about is something that's really important because it can happen to anybody who happens to be on a road. You know, they say that people usually become the victims of avalanches are people who are mountaineers, people who are on snowmobiles, people who are out in virgin snow looking for that incredible skiing opportunity. It can also be someone like the woman you just heard from from Dawsonville. Someone who just happens to be driving on one of these roads when one of the avalanches suddenly comes down.

And remember, you're going down a road, this side of the mountain brings the avalanche down, the other side of the mountain on the other side of the road is straight downhill, that snowpack is so strong, it can literally, I learned from many of my sources I've worked in Colorado, take your car and not just bury it in snow, but the first thing it does is it pushes it right off of the highway, so if your car is going on a highway, your car could fall off the highway, now it's on the backside of the snow and now you're in an area that basically is like a crevasse and when that happens the snow accumulates on top of you, so it's even more difficult for some of the rescuers to get to you.

And there's something else, and Fred, this is what you were talking about, just a moment ago when you mentioned, well, what happens if you have these conditions that you have now and you were talking to Bonnie about, what is it -- winds of what 40-45?

WHITFIELD: Forty-five mile-per-hour winds.

SANCHEZ: Forty-five mile-per-hour winds.

WHITFIELD: All that snow, as well, sure.

SANCHEZ: What that causes, I learned when I was out there, is a ground blizzard. And when you get...

WHITFIELD: You can't see anything.

SANCHEZ: It's literally like this. I'm going to take a white sheet of paper, I'm going to put it in front of my face, that's what it's like to be a ground blizzard. You literally can't see anything. And when you do open your eyes for a little bit, you find out that the sting of the snow in your face is so violent, so hard that it literally hurts, it's painful, it's too hard to keep your eyes open, to be able to see and that's what causes more of an effect. You know, and the reason we're talking about this is because we're talking about something that's happened and that's the avalanche itself.

But what's going on now for some of those rescue officials who on the scene trying to help these people. Remember, they only have so much time to be able to get to them if they're under the snow or if they're stuck in their cars. Those that maybe they didn't get to at the beginning. Let's talk to somebody now who knows an awful lot about this, in fact, he's our resident expert, whenever we've gone out to Colorado. Phil Powers is the executive director of the American Alpine Club. He was with us, those of you who watched the reports that we filed when we were out there, may have seen him. He was one of the ones who was literally dragging me along in the snow trying to teach me how to walk through this and how to survive, as difficult as it may be.

Hey Phil, thanks so much for join us.

PHIL POWERS, AMERICAN ALPINE CLUB: Good to talk to you, Rick. How are you?

SANCHEZ: Phil, let's start talking first of all, about what Fred and I were just talking about and that is if there are survivors out there, if there are people who, let's start with the folks who may be in their car. Who may have snow on top of them. How much, what is going on right now? What does the effort look like, do you think, since you've been around these kind of things in the past, to try and get to them? What's going on?

POWERS: Well, it sounds like to me they've already rescued the people that were trapped in their cars, and I certainly hope that that's the case.

SANCHEZ: So do we.

POWERS: It may very well be, however, that there's another car buried that they're unaware of at this point. Happily, someone in a car will have a pocket of air provided by the car. So is very porous, so they have a long time and...

SANCHEZ: Explain -- go over that again, because that's hard -- you said that really fast because you've been talking about this for years, but I think it's hard for the viewers to catch what you just said, a snow is very porous. So, that means they can still breathe.

POWERS: They can still breathe. Even if they were in the cars for a long period of time, because they've got that pocket of air in the car itself and then the snow outside the car is rather porous, air is going to be able to move slowly through that snow to them. Eventually, however it will solidify and start to ice up. So there's...

SANCHEZ: So when it ices up, there's a fear of suffocation?

POWERS: Certainly.

SANCHEZ: But that's not going to happen any time soon for there are people still in their cars.

POWERS: Right, now if they were buried without a car, that would be different because the breath would ice that snow up right around the face rather quickly and so the time that one has to perform a rescue is much reduced.

SANCHEZ: What does that rescue look like? Explain to us what people are doing if they're actually looking for people in an avalanche situation that may have been, I suppose, covered by the snow?

POWERS: Well, I'm going answer that question two ways, one for these cars. Let's say there's a car buried. They've got plenty of time to get people out there with probes, long slender probes that they can poke down into the snow and feel around with those probes for any buried vehicles or people. There's times to accomplish that.

If, on the other hand, it were a buried skier or a buried climber, one hopes that that buried skier or climber would be wearing an avalanche transceiver that would emit a signal that someone else could pick up and within a matter of only a few minutes, locate that individual, probe to find the precise spot and then dig them out.

SANCHEZ: It's called a transceiver. What are the chances -- or let me ask the question this way. How often do you find that skiers wear those?

POWERS: Skier in the back country in Colorado virtually always wear avalanche transceivers. It's become quite the norm in terms of back country ski equipment.

SANCHEZ: Phil Powers, we're going to take a break. Can you hang on? We might come back to you on the other side of the break to maybe talk about some other things that you certainly know much more about than just about anybody in the country since you've been studying this and know the area very well.

POWERS: I'll be right here.

SANCHEZ: Appreciate it. Phil Powers, executive director of American Alpine Club. And I guess we're going to take a quick break and stay on top of this.


SANCHEZ: We'll be right back.