A 5-year-old girl from Scottsdale, Arizona, died from asphyxiation after being buried by snow that slid from a roof at a multifamily housing unit near the base of Purgatory Resort, according to the La Plata County coroner.
The slide occurred about 5:30 p.m. March 16 at a condo or townhome development along Sheol Street south of the main Purgatory lodge.
The slide also buried the girl’s father and brother, age 7. All three were taken to Mercy Hospital in Durango before being flown to a Denver-area hospital, said Karola Hanks, fire marshal for the Durango Fire Protection District.
The girl was buried for 19 minutes before she could be rescued, said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith. The brother and the father got out of the snow much sooner but couldn’t get to the girl, she said.
“She (the girl) was not breathing when they got her out, but en route to the hospital they got her breathing again and that’s when they sent her to Children’s (Hospital in Aurora), but she didn’t make it,” Smith said.
The brother was also in critical condition when he was taken to Children’s Hospital, and the father was in serious or critical condition, Hanks said.
Their conditions were unavailable Thursday.
“We feel for the family,” Hanks said.
Hanks was unsure if the snow slid from a two-story roofline or from a slightly lower overhang. She said the family was at ground level when the snow hit.
“We’ve had such wet snow, and we’ve had some warm-ups and some melting,” she said. “And so we know that there are ice dams ... on a lot of roofs.”
Purgatory Resort has received 350 inches of snow so far this winter. By comparison, the resort typically receives an average annual snowfall of 221 inches.
It was not immediately known who owns the condo or townhome where the snowslide occurred. Durango Mountain Resort is a developer in the area and owns a lot of the real estate, but many units are under private ownership and overseen by a homeowners association or property manager.
A spokeswoman for Purgatory Resort did not respond to requests for comment.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center created an incident about the slide, saying it occurred at Purgatory Ski Resort Condos.
Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, said roof avalanches resulting in injury or death don’t happen every year, but they do occur with some frequency. In fact, the CAIC includes warnings about roof avalanches in some of its forecasts.
In the past 30 avalanche years (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30) 1993 through 2022, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has documented 19 deaths as a result of roof avalanches across the United States.
That represents about 2% of the total avalanche fatalities in the U.S. during that period.
Four of those deaths have occurred in Colorado. The most recent one, involving a 5-year-old girl at Purgatory Resort, will be the fifth roof avalanche death in 30 years.
“This is probably an undercount of deaths from roof avalanches,” said Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC in an email to The Durango Herald. “Some may go unreported by authorities unaware of the avalanche community’s desire to document these events.”
At least one of the documented roof avalanches in Island Park, Idaho, buried three children, of which the youngest did not survive.
– Herald Staff
“Roof avalanches are definitely a serious problem and something that we track just so that people can understand the nature of the problem,” he said. “It’s a hard thing for us to predict, but when we do think there is an increased chance of them happening, we do warn people about them.”
Two people were killed in March 2010 southwest of Creed when a roof avalanche buried them in snow, he said. The two individuals were inspecting a summer home and intended to do snow removal when a northeast-facing roof released.
On March 8, 2019, a property manager at Mount Crested Butte was shoveling a sidewalk when a roof avalanche knocked him down and buried him in 2-3 feet of snow. He was buried for about two hours before someone found him and called for help. He had a basketball-sized airspace for breathing but was unconscious and hypothermic.
The very next day, on March 9, 2019, two people were clearing snow from a low-angled roof in Crested Butte South. Both workers were caught and buried for about 10 minutes before anyone discovered the avalanche. Emergency workers arrived 10 minutes later. One person was dug out and survived, but the second person was not breathing and died.
“They are a serious hazard that we do warn people about,” Greene said.
Hanks warned that falling snow and ice can also sever gas lines and cause leaks and explosions.
“We all know there's been significant levels of snow, which we haven’t had since maybe 2019,” Hanks said. “... It does make it much more difficult for everyone to keep up with.”
She is especially worried about vacation homes and second-home owners who may not be home during the winter.
“We’ve rolled on numerous gas leaks up in that area (Purgatory Resort), and at Electra Lake, in which the snow and ice has broken the gas line,” she said.