The avalanche that rocketed down the west face of Mount Jumbo on Friday afternoon was probably going 120 mph when it obliterated Fred Allendorf and Michel Colville’s house at the base of the hill.
An all-neighborhood rescue crew recovered the couple, and 8-year-old Phoenix Scoles-Coburn, after hours of digging in the snow and debris. All three remained hospitalized Saturday.
A snowboarder likely triggered the slide near the summit of Jumbo, which was primed for trouble by a mid-week warm spell followed by the first serious blizzard Missoula had experienced since 1997.
“All it was waiting for was a trigger, and we got that with the snowboarder,” said West Central Montana Avalanche Center director Steve Karkanen. “He was on a slab probably 2 or 3 feet deep. It collapsed with a whoomp and he started to go for a ride. He got caught in it for a while, but got free.”
The snow slab channeled into a shallow vertical gully aimed directly at the intersection of Holly and Harrison streets in the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood. Karkanen said it was probably moving at least 80 mph after its first 2 or 3 seconds, and sped up as it hit lower slopes. Karkanen’s inclinometer measured the hillside angle just above Allendorf’s house at 36 degrees, with angles of 40 degrees or more farther up.
“That’s certainly steep enough for a slide,” Karkanen said. “I think it came from a catchment basin all the way at the top, just below the ridgeline.”
Allendorf and Colville were inside their home and Scoles-Coburn was playing nearby outside when the slide hit. It tore the house off its foundation and plowed the mangled remains about 50 feet into the intersection. A rental house to the south was still standing, but had all its windows blown out. An SUV was shoved up against the house roof and buried, leaving only its broken rear window showing. An apartment building on the north side had everything on its south lawn swept away. The remains of the Allendorf house were mixed with a smashed garage belonging to a third home on the west side of Harrison Street, which marked the end of the runout zone.
“We heard this huge whump,” neighbor Cheryl McMillan said of the 4 p.m. incident. “At first we thought it was just snow falling off the roof. But it was also more like a roar. It didn’t last very long.”
Cheryl’s son Caleb looked up the Mount Jumbo slope and saw a snowboarder walking down, carrying his board. Looking farther, he noticed the Allendorf house was gone.
Dozens of neighbors converged on the wreckage within minutes and started looking for survivors. Missoula Fire Department and other agencies soon had almost 50 personnel on the scene. The air filled with the smell of natural gas from broken service lines. The debris pile knocked a power line loose, dropping its wires right across the middle of the runout zone.
“I’ve never seen so many probe poles in one place,” said Tarn Ream, a neighbor and former student of Allendorf’s. The boy was found pinned next to a fence on the west side of Harrison Street about an hour after the search began. At first feared dead, he was soon reported in critical condition at the St. Patrick Hospital intensive care unit.
Allendorf was found an hour later, trapped beneath the remains of his brick chimney. The retired University of Montana biology professor was able to talk with rescuers, and told them Colville was standing to his east when the slide hit.
Ream said unfortunately, the place Allendorf last saw Colville was under the fallen power lines. Rescuers had to stay away from that spot until the electricity could be shut off. At times, they were even using the area to deposit snow dug from other places. Colville was dug out about three hours after the slide hit.
All three survived thanks to getting caught in air pockets in the debris that kept them from suffocating. Avalanche snow congeals hard as rock just seconds after it stops moving.
St. Patrick Hospital spokeswoman JoAnn Hoven said Allendorf had been upgraded to serious by Saturday afternoon. Colville remained in critical condition Saturday, while Scoles-Coburn was greatly improved and in fair condition.
The slide left the building looking like it had been ground through a snowblower. On Saturday, friends and neighbors dug for belongings in a snow berm 15 feet above the street surface. Bits of window curtains hung in tree branches 10 feet above that. And one big fir tree had branches snapped off more than 30 feet above its base.
In the snow, shards of construction lumber poked out in all directions. Cinder blocks lay cracked or smashed. A camper van had its sleeping roof sheared off. The top room of the three-level house was sitting cockeyed in the snow.
“They had just put the upper story on this summer,” McMillan said. Colville had a home business making craftware. McMillan was shoveling through the snow, finding hanks of yarn, sea shells and other materials.
“I’m also looking for their cat,” McMillan said. But another digger said she’d seen a policeman leaving the scene holding a small bag on Friday evening – possibly the cat’s remains.
“Once in a while, we’d see a little something slide down the hill, but nothing this big,” said McMillan, who’s lived on Harrison Street for 31 years. “There’s a woman who’s lived here 50 years, and she said she’s never seen anything like this.”
Ream was looking for particular things in the hardening snow.
“He was one of my huge inspirations at the University (of Montana),” Ream said of Allendorf. “I took every one of his classes. Fred kept notebooks – he was always scribbling in them. I’ve found a couple of those, and I’m drying them personally.”
“I think I’ve found a closet,” Jeanne Twohig said from another spot in the pile. “There’s something that looks like furniture, and hangers.”
She started pulling shirts and coats out of the snow. Another digger found a floor rug. Torn books, cracked CDs, and an occasional bottle of frozen wine appeared in a high-speed archaeological excavation.
“You don’t know where to start, so you just start,” Twohig said. “We all feel anything we can piece back together for them is to the good.”
Missoula Police officers were still investigating the cause of the incident on Saturday and were not available for comment. Anyone with information about the slide cause is asked to call Det. Dean Chrestenson at (406) 552-6705 or Det. Guy Baker at (406) 552-6284.