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Rescuers Watched Helplessly as Victims Sank Beneath Ice

February 21, 1990|TRACY WILKINSON and JOEL SAPPELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CONVICT LAKE, Calif. — The screams first were heard about noon Monday out on Convict Lake.

And soon the word spread. Four teen-age boys and two counselors from nearby Camp O'Neal had been hiking across thin ice and fallen into the water. Twelve teen-agers and two adults from the residential facility for troubled youths had been on a holiday outing.

With the ice cracking beneath them, frantic rescuers crawled toward two openings in the frigid water of Convict Lake where the drowning teen-agers and their counselors grasped desperately for life. Three teen-agers and the counselors could not be saved.

And swiftly, the efforts to rescue them became a treacherous struggle by rescuers to save each other, according to interviews with rescuers and eyewitnesses.

Clay Cutter of the U.S. Forest Service, who lived nearby, was one of the first to rush to the scene of the accident. Steadily but carefully, he made his way on hands and knees toward the center of the lake. One unidentified teen had pulled himself out, but the other three youngsters had apparently already drowned; they were no longer in sight.

Cutter was able to reach the two counselors, their heads bobbing, their arms thrashing. Perched precariously at the edge of the ice, he managed to put a rope around each man while talking to them continuously to keep them calm.

Meanwhile, summoned by their beepers, members of the Long Valley volunteer fire department hurried to the lake.

Cris Baitx, chief of the department, and Ray Turner, a captain, grabbed an aluminum flat-bottom boat and pushed it out over the ice. Suddenly, the ice broke under Turner and he fell into the water. Baitx pulled Turner back into the boat.

Crouched on a ladder to distribute his weight, Baitx pushed himself slowly over the ice toward the victims. He reached one of the counselors, known to the rescuers as "Grandpa," and started to hoist the man to safety.

Suddenly, the ice collapsed underneath them and Baitx fell into the water alongside Grandpa. Baitx, recalling the accident Tuesday from his home in Mammoth Lakes, said he found himself trapped under ice.

"I had to beat the ice out with my hands," Baitx told The Times on Tuesday. "I was sure I was gone. I was thinking of my wife and kids and are they going to be OK, because I'm history."

At this moment, volunteer fireman Vidar Anderson reached the lake and, using two ladders for better weight distribution, shimmied toward where Baitx had fallen.

Anderson grabbed Baitx--but the ice cracked again and both men plunged into the water.

"At that point, I went down again," Baitx recalled. "I head-butted the ice and busted through."

Baitx would go down a third time before being rescued; Anderson, 58, would not be seen again.

Meanwhile, Cutter, too, was having difficulties. As he struggled to assist the counselors, he had slipped and fallen into the water.

"We would see a head above water, then you didn't see that head," said one of a score of horrified spectators--including Cutter's wife--who watched the operations from the lake's shore. "There would be two heads, then one. Then no one. You knew what was going on."

By this time, Russ Veenker, a diver for the June Lake Search and Rescue Team, had arrived. Pulling a rubber raft behind him, he delicately walked onto the ice, past where Turner sat in the flatboat, tugging on a single lifeline to Baitx.

The ice cracked under Veenker's footsteps, Turner recalled.

Veenker first reached Baitx, now semiconscious, purple in color. He pulled Baitx from the water, lay him across his chest to float and stabilize him, then set him in the raft.

Then, recalled Baitx and other witnesses, Veenker turned to the other men who had been struggling to stay afloat--but no one was there. It was too late for Cutter, Anderson and the two counselors. They had lost the battle to keep their heads above water.

"They kind of lost (Cutter) right at the last," said Remington Slifka, general manager for the Convict Lake resort, who watched the futile rescue. "The diver said he thought he had him, that he really tried to hang on, but he was gone."

In the first minutes after the men and boys fell into the water, the other youngsters from Camp O'Neal continued to run out onto the ice in a panicked attempt to reach their friends.

Some would lie on the ice and try to reach into the water--until they were so soaked they had to turn back, sheriff's investigators said.

Only after rescuers warned them of the dangers could the boys be restrained. They paced the shore, watching helplessly.

"The kids were hysterical," said a 31-year-old maintenance worker from the resort who witnessed the tragedy. "Their friends were under there. They saw them dying."

All involved--the children, other counselors and many of the surviving rescuers--found themselves Tuesday grappling with feelings of anger, of guilt for having lived when close friends died, of grief.

"It was a bad scene and just kept getting worse," Baitx said. "Everybody was trying their best--but nothing was working."

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