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Zion Park Hit by Massive Slide : Disaster: 450 people were trapped at lodge for nearly a day before a new road was cut through debris.

April 14, 1995|CHARLES HILLINGER and ERIC MALNIC | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — A massive landslide thundered into the narrow Virgin River gorge, damming the river to create a flood that closed the only road, wiping out all the utilities and leaving more than 450 guests and employees stranded for almost 24 hours at the Zion Lodge, officials said Thursday.

No one was injured in the slide, which occurred shortly before 9 p.m. Wednesday.

The lake forming behind the slide on the north fork of the Virgin River reached 30 feet in depth and stretched back more than a quarter of a mile as the water rose.

Fearing that the dam created by the slide might give way--creating an immense wave of water, mud and debris that could bury communities farther down the river--officials evacuated more than 1,000 campers and vacationers at downstream sites Wednesday night.

The rising water eventually carved out a new river channel that relieved the pressure, and the threat of a downstream deluge receded. But the newly created channel gnawed away a chunk of road more than 100 yards long. The nearly vertical walls of the gorge tower more than 2,000 feet above the canyon floor, which was virtually filled by the slide and the new channel where the road used to be. But bulldozers finally were able to cut a narrow escape route through the slide area late Thursday, and the trapped people were escorted out in their own vehicles.

"Who ever thought anything like that would happen?" Dave Karaskweski, the head of park maintenance, said as he gazed in awe at the huge pile of red sandstone that had tumbled into the gorge. "When it comes to Nature, nothing amazes me anymore. We're all like little ants in a sandpile."

No one saw the slide occur, and officials are not sure why and when it happened.

About 8:50 p.m., National Park Service employees Sharon Brown and Marie Marek--who had gone to Springdale, just outside the park entrance, for dinner--were driving back up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the lodge when they noticed water on the pavement. Getting out to investigate, they saw the slide and realized that the water was rising.

"I knew something was drastically wrong," Brown said.

The women quickly drove back to the park entrance and sounded the alarm.

Grabbing medical supplies they thought might be needed, four rangers managed to ford the rising water and reached the lodge before the road washed out. They were the last ones to get through by land.

Concerned that the landslide dam might give way, Glen Humphries, sheriff of Washington County, called together a search-and-rescue team to organize a downstream evacuation.

Team members, along with Park Service employees and volunteers from the Springdale Fire Department, raced through riverbank campsites warning everyone to get out. Guests at two riverfront motels were told to head for higher ground.

Within an hour, impromptu campsites had sprung up in parks, on lawns and beside roads throughout Springdale.

On the upstream side of the slide, telephones at the lodge were working at 9:45 p.m. Wednesday, but within an hour they went dead as the rising water flooded underground utility conduits. Lights blinked out, water pressure dropped to zero and the sewer system backed up. A total of 300 guests and 150 Park Service employees were marooned.

*

Except for the forced isolation, conditions were pretty good: Everyone had a room, there was plenty of food and the scenery was stunning.

The lodge is at the center of one of America's most spectacular national parks, surrounded by and within easy walking distance of monoliths such as "the Sentinel" and "the Great White Throne" that soar as much as 2,500 feet above the canyon floor.

Last year, 2.6 million people visited the 147,000-acre park, which is centered about 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Thursday's sunrise revealed the slide--a vast, jumbled pile of boulders and earth spiked with a few pine trees that jutted out like toothpicks. The water rushing through the new channel was stained red by the Navajo sandstone that had been stripped from the west face of the canyon, leaving a scar more than 1,500 feet tall.

By midday, helicopters from the Grand Canyon had flown to the lodge with a generator and other emergency equipment.

To build the detour, heavy earthmoving equipment was trucked in from the St. George area, about 35 miles to the west. Engineers said the first effort was to create a narrow, one-lane bypass road--a temporary route substantial enough to permit the stranded tourists to drive out.

A permanent replacement--something that would permit the lodge to reopen and tourists to revisit Zion's landmarks--is probably many weeks away, the engineers said.

Meanwhile, the rest of the park and Utah's Highway 9--which travels the 36 miles from Interstate 15 in the St. George area through the south end of the park and on to Mt. Carmel Junction--will remain open.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Landlocked

A massive landslide left more than 450 guests and employees stranded for almost 24 hours at the Zion Lodge. Bulldozers cut an escape route late Thursday.

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