Slide survivor speaks
December 28, 2007
"I saw the snow coming down the hill and then I got hit," 11-year-old Max Zilvitis said.
The boy was skiing near the Ninety-Nine 90 lift at The Canyons Dec. 23 when a roughly 175-foot-wide chunk of snow broke loose around 11:15 a.m. The avalanche killed 30-year-old Jesse R. Williams, who was a volunteer ski patrolman from Grand Junction, Colo.
Zilvitis was blue when he was pulled from underneath the pile of icy snow.
"All I could think about were all the hundreds of conversations that we’re in the middle of that we might not get to finish," said Max’s father Brian Zilvitis, who was also trapped in the slide.
According to Max, "I moved my head and arms around a lot I felt like I went upside down and I was covered in snow."
The boy was trapped for about 39 minutes, his father explained.
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"I don’t remember anything after getting buried in the snow," Max said, adding that he didn’t wake up at the hospital until the next day.
Max said he recalls sitting down to rest near the center of the run when his dad yelled "avalanche."
"It was intended to be our last run of the day," said Brian, who was buried in the slide up to his waist. "I just remember the pressure building up my legs and up my back and then it stopped It seemed surreal."
Snow from the slide covered the hillside and "when I didn’t see [Max], I said the chances of me getting him alone are just too low," the father added.
So he called for help.
"I would not want to listen to how I sounded on that 911 call because I’m sure it was disastrous. It was the worst feeling in my life," Brian said.
Skiers stopped to help, but until patrollers arrived, the rescue party was disorganized, Brian said, adding that people used ski poles to probe for his son.
The boy’s body was recovered in a gully about 40 yards from where Max was last seen, he added.
"[Patrollers] distributed probes and set up a line at the very bottom of the slide and one further up the slide," Brian said.
A teenage girl probing next to him discovered Max buried in the snow.
"I thanked her on the way out but I don’t know who she was," the father said.
Max was immediately administered CPR then loaded in a helicopter and flown to the Primary Children’s Medical Center.
"I was blowing on his hand trying to warm him up," Brian said.
Max’s body temperature dropped significantly so doctors slowly began helping the boy heat up.
But for 24 hours his temperature was kept a few degree below normal to prevent his brain from swelling, Max’s mother Samantha Zilvitis said.
"After that 24 hours they very slowly began raising his body temperature," she said. "They allowed him to raise his body temperature himself."
Max regained consciousness in the afternoon Christmas Eve.
The first question he asked was, "what happened to me?" his mother said.
"Then he said, ‘where are my skis, where’s my pass, where are my boots and where is my Burton ski jacket and pants?’" Samantha said, adding that the clothing was cut from his body. "It was pretty awesome."
Max still gets dizzy and doctors are treating him for a possible concussion. He suffered a minor hand injury in the accident but otherwise is fine, his mother said proudly.
"Max is a rock star for going through all of this and being incredible when he woke up, asking questions and talking," Samantha beamed. "We thank the ski patrol and the volunteers there for doing such a great job finding him in the snow."
At the hospital things couldn’t have gone more smoothly, she said about her son’s miraculous recovery.
"It’s such a random thing, because if they had gone a few seconds earlier they would have been already down," Samantha said. "If they had waited 30 seconds, they would have been higher and would have gotten badly caught in [the avalanche]."
A skier since he was three, Max said he is excited to get back on the slopes. But first he must prepare to return to Parley’s Park Elementary School in Silver Springs.
Brian said a Discovery Channel special his son watched about avalanches might have helped save his life.
"Something flashed in his mind to make that space," Brian Zilvitis said.
Max said he learned Thursday that a man died in the avalanche.
"Avalanches are scary things and they can kill people," the boy lamented.
Brian expressed condolences.
"We do feel very, very sad about that and our hearts do go out to his friends and family," he said.
Max’s younger sister Abby was lonely without her brother.
"I’m really glad that he’s back because it’s really boring without somebody," she said about Max.
The boy hopes to meet the people who helped save him at The Canyons on Sunday.
"They know more about what happened to me than I do," Max said.