Zephyr Cove family survives deadly Austrian avalanche
When the Notts decided to take their 8-year-old daughter on a European skiing vacation, they wanted something out of the ordinary.
A remote village in the Austrian Alps, Galtuer, is popular with European tourists. Few Americans visit the town of 1,600 inhabitants, located in the Tyrol province of western Austria. So it seemed perfect for the Notts.
They arrived on a Sunday. Tuesday it started snowing and didn’t stop for eight days.
The only road into Galtuer quickly closed, stranding the Notts and many other tourists. Now snowbound, a ritual began for the Zephyr Cove family. Every morning Jerry Nott would walk to a tourist station in the center of town to hear the road report. Jerry, his wife, Connie, and their daughter, Dana, spent the days sledding, swimming in the town’s sports complex and playing cards.
“Every day you got up hoping to see the sun, and every day when you looked out the window you saw nothing but snow,” Jerry said. “The snow kept building up. They warned about avalanche possibilities and on Friday there was a small avalanche behind the hotel. After that they told us that when we ventured outside, we should stay close to the hotel.”
The following Tuesday, another avalanche proved deadly.
“When we woke up on Tuesday, there was just this tremendous wind,” Jerry said. “We went to the window and couldn’t see more than four or five feet. When we went downstairs for breakfast, we learned an avalanche had hit the buildings across the field from us. We realized the whiteout was probably the after-cloud of the avalanche.”
The avalanche claimed 31 people – most of them tourists.
“The storm was so bad they couldn’t get any rescuers in, so the townspeople were going over to look for people,” he added.
The Notts are accustomed to snow storms and road closures, but when the avalanche hit they began to think about evacuation.
“That night we could see the lights of the rescue workers, across the field, as they dug people out,” Connie said. “Who would have believed that the storm would go on for so long?”
When the Austrian Army started to evacuate people by helicopter, the hotel owners recommended the Notts leave if they could.
“It was pretty much a chaotic situation,” Jerry said. “It was first come, first serve. You had to register with the army and then get in line. We stood in line outside from almost 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you moved out of place or stepped out of line, you lost your place. The two helicopters could only move around 10 to 14 people a piece, at one time.”
As they waited, Jerry began to worry about Dana’s health. She was cold and possibly starting to get some frostbite. The army circulated wool blankets. Just as the Notts were close to boarding a helicopter, the weather worsened and the evacuation had to be halted.
A tired family returned to their hotel. The next day the weather improved, and the cavalry arrived. Larger German and U.S. helicopters came to aid in the evacuation. The helicopters brought the evacuees to the autobahn. The Notts and other evacuees were then transported by bus and train to Innsbruck, Austria.
“Flights leaving were heavily booked, so we decided to stay in Innsbruck for a few days and ski,” Jerry said. “Some people thought we were a little crazy, but we wanted to end the trip on a good note. It sounds like a harrowing experience, but I never felt we were in danger even though it was so close. Everybody was just tired of being stuck.”
The Notts said the confinement brought a camaraderie between themselves and three other European families staying at their hotel.
“It was a close-knit situation. We were from different corners of the Earth, but we became a group,” Jerry said.
Dana began a friendship with a 9-year-old German girl staying in the hotel. Neither could speak the other’s language, but it didn’t stop them from having fun.
“Once in a lifetime is enough,” Connie said of the experience Wednesday.
The family returned home to Lake Tahoe, Tuesday.
“Once we got to the hotel in Innsbruck, we were watching television, trying to get a glimpse of the coverage,” Connie said. “They televised the mass funeral for the victims. They showed coffin after coffin. It was so close. It was just the right pick of hotel in that town that kept us safe.”
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