Half a dozen racers were waiting at the top of a steep hill called Big Bowl in Running Springs while veteran speed skier David James Erikson tore through the course.
"We heard the time. The speed came over the radio at 84 m.p.h. And after that I heard a real loud noise," said Brad Daniels, 29, a racer from Laguna Niguel who shuddered at the memory.
"I thought in my own head, maybe he hit a lift tower or something, I hope he didn't," Daniels recalled Saturday. But moments later came the call for the ski patrol.
The accident Thursday at 7:20 p.m. was the worst ever at the Snow Valley resort. As fellow racers watched, Erikson, 24, an expert skier from Laguna Niguel, roared down the hill, made a few turns at the bottom to slow himself, then slammed head on into a large, orange-striped fiberglass shield covering snow-making equipment.
Taken by ambulance to Big Bear Community Hospital, he died an hour after the crash of head and chest injuries.
Erikson's fellow racers said he apparently caught the edge of one ski in the snow, lost control and skied directly into the snow-making equipment. But exactly what occurred is under investigation by San Bernardino County sheriff's deputies, the coroner's office and Snow Valley's insurance company.
His family is also perplexed about what happened to the engineering student and ski team member at Cal Poly Pomona. His father, Laguna Hills physician David Junkin Erikson, called his eldest son "a thrill-seeking guy--but he was careful."
Although the victim enjoyed "high-stimulus events"--in addition to speed skiing, he had tried sky-diving and bungee-cord jumps--he always worked hard to do such things safely, Erikson said.
In speed skiing, for instance, "he never let himself go up to the full speeds obtainable up there" on the Snow Valley course, his father said.
Although Erikson thought he could go faster than speeds in the mid-80s, he had said "he didn't want to try yet," his father said.
Whatever the cause of Erikson's death, it was clearly another case of negative publicity for the daredevil sport. Swiss speed skier Nicholas Bochatay, 27, was killed Saturday when he crashed head-on into a snow-grooming machine during a practice run for the Winter Olympics at Les Arcs, France. Witnesses said the equipment was hidden behind a bump, and Bochatay did not see it.
In Erikson's case, however, fellow racer Daniels said the equipment was well marked.
Noting that Erikson had been racing at Snow Valley for four years, ski area general manager Benno Nager added: "It's a big, eight-foot, large object that you cannot miss--white with bright orange stripes. There are 300 of these things on top of the mountain. He clearly knew it was there."
Erikson "veered off and skied into it" anyway, Nager said.
If the cause of Erikson's accident is unclear, what remains is that the sport of speed skiing--roaring straight down a mountain at breakneck speeds--is intrinsically dangerous.
In contrast with slalom racers, speed skiers do not seek to turn or brake during their descent. They have been clocked at up to 143 m.p.h., though 70- or 80-m.p.h. speeds are more typical on Snow Valley's amateur course.
Daniels, a salesman for Chick's Sporting Goods in Laguna Hills, called Erikson's death "a freak accident," but he also wondered about race conditions.
At the bottom of the course, "I didn't feel as comfortable with the run-out area--I didn't feel it was long enough," Daniels said. "You could stop in the area, but . . . it was a little short. . . . I kind of feel like you were forced to go into the turn situation harder than you should have been."
Erikson's parents knew the dangers of speed skiing. "Hell, yes," Dr. Erikson said Saturday night.
But although they did not like the idea, they never asked him to stop. "We did not tell him what to do or what not to do," Dr. Erikson said. "It was our feeling it was safer in the long run to let him burn himself out of things, rather than take a stand that he would ignore."
Erikson was a good student at Dana Hills High School and Cal Poly Pomona, his father said. An enthusiastic member of the Cal Poly team that built and raced a solar-run car, Erikson dreamed of an engineering career.
But for recreation, David skied. He started at age 7 and could ski just about any terrain, his father said. "He loved to ski, and he wanted to go fast," Dr. Erikson said. "But winning per se was not that important.
"I never saw him speed ski," his father added. "I never saw a video of him speed skiing. He showed us his helmet one time. I don't remember if we saw the suit (a tight, aerodynamically designed latex outfit). We did see the big long skis. I don't know anything more."
But if they did not say much to their son about speed skiing, Dr. Erikson remembered one thing that he and his wife did say: "We said, 'Be careful.' "
The family learned of the accident Thursday night. A member of the Cal Poly ski team called them after Erikson was taken to the emergency room at Bear Valley Community Hospital. Erikson was dead before his parents could arrive.
David is survived by his parents, an older sister, Susan, and a younger brother, Kevin. In his memory, the family plans an informal service at their Laguna Niguel home.