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Off-duty firefighter helps rescue skier injured in Utah avalanche: ‘Right place, right time’

(NEFFS CANYON, Utah) — An off-duty Utah firefighter said he was in the right place at the right time when he came upon a skier half-buried in an avalanche this week, aiding in a rescue mission that took nearly eight hours.

Tom Elbrecht, a firefighter with the Unified Fire Authority, was skiing with his dog on Wednesday morning in Neffs Canyon in Salt Lake City when he heard a person yelling for help.

“I heard a very distinct ‘help’ from somewhere up on the hill, shouted back, got a response from the victim,” Elbrecht told reporters Thursday.

The skier — a 35-year-old man — had gotten caught in an avalanche estimated to be about 200 feet wide and up to three feet deep at around 11:45 a.m. local time, police said. He had been buried for about 45 minutes by the time Elbrecht found him, according to the Utah Avalanche Center said in its preliminary report. The avalanche danger for that area at that time was “considerable,” the center said.

Elbrecht made his way up the hill with his dog, Wiley, and found the victim wrapped around a tree, buried to his chest in the snow with his head, arms and one leg exposed. Elbrecht took to carefully unburying the victim from the heavy avalanche snow, concerned about possible damage to the man’s spine and right leg, which appeared broken.

“At that point I called actually my wife first because she knew exactly where I was that day,” Elbrecht said. “She was a pretty pivotal link and getting the correct information to the right people as fast as possible.”

Elbrecht said he helped keep the skier warm by huddling with Wiley in a snow shelter he built and giving him his jacket, vest and an extra down jacket while waiting for rescuers to get to them.

“I had my dog and I had him sandwiched between us and just tried to stay warm as a group together,” Elbrecht said.

The wait ended up being about six hours. Difficult terrain conditions and the location hindered the rescue operation, and a helicopter made several failed attempts to hoist them off the mountain.

“[I knew] it was not going to be a 30-minute ordeal, it was not gonna be an hour ordeal, it was gonna be hours,” Elbrecht said. “But as we started approaching, you know, 4:30, 5 o’clock, it was getting a little discouraging.”

“But I knew that they were going to do the best that they could as far as on search and rescue side of things,” he continued.

Eventually, ground teams went in and the skier was carried down by a snowmobile to the Neffs Canyon trailhead, where an awaiting ambulance transported him to the hospital, the Utah Avalanche Center said.

The skier, who has not been publicly identified, suffered a broken femur, arm injury and hypothermia in the avalanche, police said.

Elbrecht’s main regret was not carrying a lighter and snow saw — two things he normally does pack to make a fire if need but had left behind since he only expected to be out for a couple of hours.

Those involved in the rescue referred to Elbrecht as a hero — a word he avoided using himself.

“I can think of hundreds of coworkers that would do the exact same thing,” he said. “It was the right time, right place.”

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