A massive avalanche -- with three snow chutes about 18 feet deep and 100 feet wide -- threw two cars driving on Berthoud Pass over the edge Saturday morning, just after the majority of skiers and boarders made their way up to Winter Park Resort.
"Our crews said it was the largest they have ever seen. It took three paths," said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Crews rescued eight people -- seven adults and one minor -- in the two cars, said Stegman.
One man who was in car that had been flung off the highway was the most seriously injured and transported to St. Anthony's Central Hospital with a broken rib. Seven others were treated at the hospital and released.
"None of the injuries have been life-threatening. All of the victims are feeling quite lucky to be alive," said Bev Lilly, spokeswoman for St. Anthony Central Hospital.
The victims are with a church group in Iowa who were coming back from an outing at Winter Park Resort, 7NEWS reported. Twenty-six people from Oakwood Road Church were coming down the pass, traveling in several cars, when two of their cars were hit by the avalanche, forcing the vehicles to tumble down the mountain about 250 yards.
"I looked up and all I could see was the snow dumping on us and we went into the ditch and we kept rolling faster and faster," said avalanche survivor Sarah Johnson. "I thought, 'This is never going to end,' and I thought I was going to die this way."
Darren Johnson was one of the victims trapped in the snow.
"Every time I close my eyes I can see it all over again, like it's just happening again," said Darren Johnson. "I can feel the impact. I can feel the rolls."
"You could feel (the car) go over the guard rail very quickly. It just hit the guard rail and flipped over and over and over again," said survivor Jordon Cook.
The victims told 7NEWS that they are amazed at how quickly help arrived.
An avalanche rescue team was conducting a drill on the summit of Berthoud Pass when they received word of what happened and rushed to the scene. About 20 members of the Alpine Rescue Team arrived almost immediately and began digging.
Crews probed the massive mounds of snow that covered all lanes of the highway for people or cars that had been trapped but CDOT said no cars were buried.
The avalanche occurred at about 10:30 a.m., and the late-morning timing meant most traffic headed to the ski area had already passed, Stegman said.
"If it would've happened just a couple of hours earlier, this would've been a very different situation," she told CNN.
Crews were trying Sunday to keep U.S. Highway 40 safe from any more avalanches by firing artillery shells to set off controlled avalanches above the road.
U.S. 40 Berthoud Pass was shut down for most of the day but reopened at 7:45 p.m. The avalanche is located at mile marker 245 approximately 8 miles west of Empire.
With large amounts of unstable snow still sitting on top of the mountain, CDOT crews worked through the day to blast the chutes and clear the area. However, high winds hampered the effort.
Crews had to clear the snow from the road and tow the two impacted vehicles before the highway was reopened.
Recovery crews were at the scene Sunday to retrieve the two vehicles.
Motorists told 7NEWS Sunday that they are now nervous to drive along the avalanche shoots.
"You just drive by all the time not thinking about what could happen. I'm sure the people in those cars did the same thing," said Ken Nelson of Allie Towing.
Avalanche experts said 2,000 to 6,000 snow slides are reported every year in Colorado. They said they estimate 10 times as many go unreported.
Experts said generally people are relatively safe inside their vehicles during an avalanche
"A car is a big metal object that's built to handle impacts. So, an avalanche may break out the windows and tumble you for a ways but you are still protected by the vehicle," said avalanche forecaster Spencer Logan. "It's like being in a car accident."
Logan said some motorists in Utah use avalanche beacons but he said there is little use for them in Colorado. He did recommend for motorists who do a lot of winter driving on rural roads to have a shovel, a sleeping bag, flash light, cell phone and water in their vehicles.
Eyewitnesses Describe Scene
Mike Murphy saw the slide roar down the mountain and he and others jumped out of their cars to help.
"It was amazing how people got together, and start digging with hands, start digging with shovels, people were yelling for anyone who had (avalanche) beacons or probes," Murphy said.
"It didn't look like that much but when it came down, but man, there were just piles 15 feet high ... The slide had completely covered the road," he said.
Mile Cikara said he was headed up to Winter Park on U.S. 40 and had just made the turn past Empire when he saw a bunch of cars stopped in the middle of the road.
"I asked what happened and they said there had been an avalanche," Cikara said.
"I along with 30 other people grabbed shovels and started digging to get people out. I had a shovel but people were using their hands, skis, ski poles, whatever, to dig," he said.
He said they were all standing on a 15-foot mountain of snow and working furiously when Clear Creek County rescuers and others arrived and took over the rescue.
Rescuers, fearing the risk of another avalanche, asked others to clear the area.
Cikara said he has avalanche rescue training and ran back to his car to get some of his gear so that he could help, but it turns out he only had a few items and not the one item necessary -- an avalanche beacon.
"We didn't have beacons so they asked us to leave, just in case another one came down," he said.
Colorado Ski Academy said it has more 200 metro-area students who were on a trip at Winter Park. Officials said the students will be bussed back to Denver on the alternate route through Granby.
"We are making arrangements to feed all the students in Silverthorne, and all students are safe. We will be posting approximate return times on our Web site
," said Peggy Shafer, with Colorado Ski Academy.
Back-To-Back Storms, Winds Trigger Slide
Three snow storms in as many weeks have dumped more than 4 feet of snow on parts of Colorado and this area in Berthoud Pass had seen 3 feet of new snow.
Winds had been blowing in the area at 30-45 mph but at the time of the avalanche it was gusting 60 mph, said 7NEWS Meteorologist Richard Ortner.
A blowing snow advisory is in effect for this area through Saturday night.
Usually avalanches happen later in the season, although they're not uncommon in that area. The same area had seen three or four avalanches just last week, 7NEWS reported.
"It had been previously controlled but the back-to-back storms certainly played a large part in this. Normally, we don't have such a deep snow pack this time of year but everyone in the area knows what a wallop these last storms gave us. So we did have an incredible amount of snow up there and really what gave an extra boost to the instability was the recent winds," said Ann Mellick, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The area usually has slides 2 to 3 feet deep, not 15, Stegman said.
"This is a tremendous amount of snow to come down the mountain for us," she said.
Berthoud Pass is 11,307-foot-high and is about 60 miles west of Denver. It is the main route from to Winter Park, one of Colorado's largest ski areas.
"Although lodging in Winter Park and surrounding areas is heavily booked, resort employees are helping to accommodate guests that may choose to stay. Resort facilities will be kept open as necessary to aid delayed guests," said Winter Park spokeswoman Darcy Morse.
Winter Park Resort officials suggested for guests who wanted to return to Denver to go north on U.S. 40 through Granby to Kremmling, take Highway 9 south to Silverthorne and then exit 205 to go eastbound on Interstate 70.
The suggested route for those headed to northern Colorado and the Fort Collins area is north on U.S. Highway 40 to CO 125, north on CO 125 to CO Highway 14, and go eastbound over Cameron Pass to southbound Highway 287.
Avalanche Kills Backcountry Skier In Wyoming
On Friday, an avalanche killed a Vermont man who was skiing in the backcountry just south of Wyoming's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Resort and sheriff's officials said that 25-year-old Justin Kuntz and two others were swept off a cliff by the avalanche Friday afternoon.
Rescuers reached Kuntz within five minutes. But he stopped breathing after they dug him out and resuscitation attempts failed.
The survivors were treated for minor injuries.
Kuntz was from Hartland, Vt., and was believed to have been working in the Jackson area.
Copyright Copyright 2007 by TheDenverChannel.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.