Driver buried in a highway avalanche recounts horror
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Karrie Kunich drove south along Highway 89, as she had hundreds of times before, for her job as a real estate appraiser. The sky was blue and the sun was out. Kunich thought about starting her garden in Markleeville soon.
As she rounded Emerald Bay, not far past the Eagle Falls trailhead, she noticed the car in front of her speed up suddenly. A shower of light snow came off the mountain and blocked her view. The falling snow got heavier and heavier and heavier. She could hear the snow pounding against the outside of her Chevrolet Tahoe.
“It got louder and louder and louder,” Kunich said. “At first I thought I wasn’t in danger. A little snow off the mountain, no big deal.”
Then the windshield caved in and the snow flooded through the vehicle. Kunich planted her feet and arched her back to avoid being crushed by the snow. She was pressed against the left side of her Chevrolet Tahoe unable to move. The snow kept rumbling into and over the vehicle.
“I thought I was going to die,” Kunich said. “I thought I was going to be crushed to death. I even shouted it out, ‘I’m dying!'”
When the snow stopped, everything was black and completely silent. The vehicle was completely buried and she was buried up to her chest inside. Snow squeezed between her back and the seat had tightened the seatbelt around her body. Kunich wiggled her toes and her fingers.
She freed her arm and reached for the window button. The glass rolled down and she pushed some snow away. Big chunks fell away from above the door and a small hole of sky appeared. Kunich yelled for help.
“To me it felt like centuries,” she said. “Realistically, he was to me in 2-3 minutes.”
The driver of the car in front of her had climbed over the slide to help. He made the hole to Kunich larger, snapped a few photos, and within the next few minutes sheriff’s officers arrived from both sides of the slide. Officers had to cut Kunich’s seat belt. She still had her foot on the brake and was afraid to let it off because she thought the car would roll.
“I had no concept of where I was,” Kunich remembered. “I didn’t know I was underneath.”
The officers pulled her to safety. As she waited for the ambulance that would take her to Barton Memorial Hospital for examination, Kunich watched as her husband’s company, Emerald Bay Towing, tried to pull her car out of the thick snow.
“We tried winching it out,” said Matt Silveria, the tow truck driver on the scene. “The load was so heavy we literally had to chain-drag it with a snowplow.”
The snow inside the car could’ve weighed as much as the car itself, Silveria said. It was the first time he’d ever seen a car buried in an avalanche, he added.
After Caltrans crews were able to clear accumulated snow, Highway 89 had opened the day before the March 1 slide that trapped Kunich.
“We were out there for three days,” said Mark Dinger, a spokesman for Caltrans. “We deemed it safe. We brought our workers in there.”
The unanticipated high temperatures throughout the day and night played a role in the slide, Dinger said.
The area is considered an avalanche area. Signs are posted warning motorists about the danger. There are more than 50 avalanche plumes along that stretch of road, Dinger said. Caltrans does not do avalanche control in the area.
“We always err on the side of caution,” Dinger said. “In the future, we’re going to use even more caution.”
Regardless of how safe the road, Kunich will still have trouble driving Highway 89, she said.
“I have some mental problems with it right now,” she said. “Sunday I woke up in tears. It messes with your head when you go through something where you really almost die.”