As Elaine Snyder remembers the trauma of plunging 14 feet and breaking both ankles when the second-story deck of the Glacier Camp lodge collapsed that fateful June afternoon, she is struck by a somewhat serendipitous twist that accompanied the tragedy.
More than 250 people had gathered on June 17 to pay their last respects to Bill Nickel at a memorial service held at the camp on Flathead Lake south of Lakeside. Nickel spent three decades as a firefighter in the Flathead Valley and was a talented woodworker. As it turned out, there were many first responders in the crowd to immediately help the 54 people who were injured.
“It was unbelievable,” Snyder said, pausing a few moments as she relived the agonizing aftermath of the deck collapse. “They train for this sort of thing … there were lots of EMTs, four nurses, two doctors and lots of carpenters. They really stabilized several people and recognized what the injuries were.”
She recalls the people with woodworking skills quickly stabilizing the fallen deck sections and EMTs springing into action before other first responders arrived on scene.
Snyder, a well-known custom tailor of buckskin garments who lives in Kalispell, was among the most critically injured. She spent two months convalescing in Brendan House in Kalispell and is still recovering. By Sept. 9 she was to drive a car once again. She’s continues to have physical therapy and does exercises at home to help regain full use of her ankles.
“I’m working on stairs and squats,” she said.
The memorial service had wrapped up around 4 p.m. the day of the accident, and people were mingling and dispersing before a potluck meal was to begin. Some headed down to the lake, others were on the deck. Snyder, 67, was on the deck and headed to an area close to the lodge wall where the drinks were set up when — “Wham!”
She was on the first section of deck near the lodge’s double doors when it gave way. Three sections of the massive deck fell.
“I fell 14 feet, onto concrete,” Snyder said. “I was talking to my friend and as he fell I could see his grimaced face. I found my feet between the sheets of decking and pulled my legs out. My ankles were burst, the skin was split.”
Snyder’s left leg bore the brunt of the fall.
“I had the presence of mind to pull my feet out,” she recalled. “I wasn’t going to allow anyone to stand me up.”
Two women who suffered some bruising moved Snyder onto a section of the fallen deck, where she stayed until emergency workers arrived. One of those women sat with Snyder until she was triaged out.
“I started hearing all the moans and cries. Everyone was in total shock,” she recalled.
First responders assessed the severity of the injuries by color, with red being the most critical.
“I was a critical yellow because I had two broken legs,” she said. She also developed a hematoma on one elbow as a result of the fall.
Injuries ran the gamut among the victims, from minor bruising to broken and sprained ankles to multiple fractures of arms, legs, backs and pelvises.
“About seven of us had two leg fractures,” Snyder said. “Some had a broken pelvis or cracked vertebrae or cracked tailbone, and combinations of all these kinds of things.”
First responders initially intended to airlift Snyder to Polson or Missoula, but she successfully lobbied to be flown to North Valley Hospital so she could remain in the Flathead Valley. Most of the injured ended up at Kalispell Regional Medical Center; one was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle; others were transported to hospitals in Polson and Missoula.
Ages of the injured ranged from an infant less than 1 year old to 85. Three young children had some degree of concussions, Snyder said.
The blessing amid the tragedy was that no one died that day.
There were long roads ahead for most of the injured.
Snyder spent three nights at North Valley Hospital. That time is still a blur, she said. She remembers being awake for a short time in the emergency room, but the next morning she didn’t immediately know where she was. As she attempted to put her feet over the side of the bed, she realized her legs were in casts.
Six others were in the same boat as Snyder, unable to stand up. She was among five patients who recovered at Brendan House; one recovered at The Retreat in Kalispell; another at Harborview.
“I broke both ankles, but in different ways,” Snyder explained.
She had surgery on her right leg June 26 when doctors put in a plate, rods and screws to piece that ankle back together.
“It has healed beautifully and it became my anchor leg,” she said. “My left leg took the brunt of the fall. Even now it’s numb around the left side of the heel. I fractured the inner heel bone in multiple places. It had to stay bound for a full 10 weeks.
The injured patients at Brendan House became known as the “deck girls,” Snyder said with a smile. All of them underwent physical and occupational therapy as they rehabilitated, and there was other healing to be done as well.
“Brendan House had a counseling session for us,” she said. “We all had visitors, friends and family, and some from the deck collapse. It was good therapy in that we talked about it a lot.”
Since Snyder is widowed and lives alone, she couldn’t come home in a wheelchair. On Aug. 16, when she could finally stand once again, she was released.
“I came out of Brendan House with a walker,” she said.
One of her sisters came to help out for the first two weeks; then another sister spent 12 days. One of her brothers offered assistance as well.
When Snyder got home, she found neighbors had watered and tended the garden Snyder had planted before the accident, and had kept her fruit trees and flowers watered as well. One of her neighbors handled the lawn care. They brought her mail to her, too.
“People were doing this for other people [who were injured], too,” Snyder said. “I came home with a long list of people who would take care of me.”
She handled most of her personal care by herself, though. “I’m Miss Independent,” she added.
She still marvels at the generosity and care that were so readily offered to her and others.
“It took a village and community of friends,” she said.
In addition to tending to their injuries, the victims also had varied work lives to sort out as well as they healed.
Snyder, who in 2009 was inducted into the Montana’s Circle of American Masters by the Montana Arts Council, has made a living as a custom leather clothier since 1975. All of her accounts had to be put on hold until she could resume her leather work.
There’s still the legal end of the deck collapse to resolve. Several who were injured have filed personal injury claims against Glacier Presbytery, the camp’s owner.
As the year draws to a close, Snyder remains in physical therapy, working to regain leg muscle and “do stairs properly.”
Her goal was to get back to her yoga class, and she’s already done that, even though the class is held in a basement. That meant navigating steps. Snyder is cautious as she re-enters the walking world. She keeps a set of ski poles in her car, and doesn’t venture out without them or ice cleats.
“This was a shocking event to go through,” she said, adding that at the end of the day, the overriding desire is simply this: “I want to be normal.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.