By Steve Hubrecht

Yesterday a large avalanche in the Purcells, somewhat near but not right at Panorama Mountain Resort, caught a group of heli skiers and prompted a flurry of response from emergency personnel.

The ripples of the incident spread through the Columbia Valley as dozens of residents became involved with efforts to help.

By early this morning RCMP confirmed that 10 people were caught in the avalanche —  three of them were killed and four were injured (some of them quite seriously).

Local residents heard the distinct and ominous sounds of helicopters and sirens of emergency vehicles starting about mid-day on Wednesday, Mar. 1, and lasting several hours thereafter. The sheer number of helicopters and vehicles involved, and the number of personnel bustling around outside the local hospital gave clear indication that the incident was very serious indeed, long before any reports of the fatalities and injuries became public.

By yesterday evening national media outlets were carrying news stories outlining that a group with local heliski company RK Heliski had been involved in the accident. Panorama Mountain Resort reportedly closed their upper lifts to help make rescue efforts smoother.

This morning the Columbia Valley RCMP detachment issued a press release with details about the incident, confirming the numbers and outlining that one of the seriously injured people was the group’s guide. The other nine were non-Canadians, and their identities are not being released until authorities notify their next of kin.

The avalanche occurred around noon, and Columbia Valley Search and Rescue and Parks Canada began to join the rescue efforts, but stood down when all the buried skiers were accounted for. BC Emergency Health Services was also involved, taking care of the deceased and injured skiers, who were flown to the Invermere hospital.

Global News reporter Jayme Doll reported on Twitter this morning that the three people killed were all tourists from the same German village. She attributed this information to Invermere mayor Al Miller.

However, when the Pioneer contacted Miller about a half hour later, he said this was the first he’d heard that three people from the same village had been killed.

“It’s (the incident) heartbreaking, quite honestly,” Miller told the Pioneer. “It’s not something we are used to in our small town. We have very good quality (tourism) operators who operate to a very high standard of safety. We just don’t see this kind of thing. Unfortunately Mother Nature is sometimes just unpredictable…It’s hard on everybody involved. It’s hard on the community.”

Miller said that Invermere is “a tight-knit community. We came together in hard times. That’s what’s happening now, but that doesn’t make it easy.”

His sentiments were echoed by Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK) Area F director Susan Clovechok about midday today. It was in Area F that that the avalanche occurred.

“This is a small valley and we all care deeply for one another. There are no words that adequately can convey our sorrow for the lives lost and all of the lives affected by this tragedy,” said Clovechok in a press release, extending her thoughts and prayers to all impacted and tanking all those involved in the response.

This afternoon RK Heliski issues a statement, in which the company said: “the guests and the guides who ski with us each season are part of our family. We are heartbroken about the accident that happened yesterday near Invermere, B.C. It is impossible to put into words the sorrow that we feel and the sadness that is shared by our guests, their families and all of our staff. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved, their loved ones and the community.”

The company outlined that it was grateful to its team and all other groups helped with the incident.

“We would like to thank the professional ski patrollers from Panorama Mountain Resort, CMH Bugaboos for their dedicated team of professional Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) guides and supporting aircrafts from Coldstream Helicopters, Silver King Helicopters, Glacier Helicopters and CMH helicopters.”

RK Heliski added that it has asked the Canada’s national heliski industry association,  HeliCat Canada, to activate a Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team of peer responders to support its staff.