Elizabeth Mackey, 1/7/06

Russian Jack sledding death brings new warnings

Precautions: Girl, 11, always wore helmet skiing, but who wears one sledding?

By KATIE PESZNECKER Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 17, 2006

Staff at Russian Jack Springs Park have roped off areas of a popular sledding hill following a young Anchorage girl's death last week from head injuries suffered in an accident there.

Elizabeth Mackey, 11, was among some 100 Junior Nordic skiers at the park Jan. 7 for their final session. Her father, Steve Mackey, said she had just finished skiing and decided to join two friends for a couple of quick sledding trips down the slope. On the second run, the sled headed for a stand of cottonwoods. The girls agreed to jump, Mackey said.

Elizabeth, seated in the middle, didn't get off in time. She hit a tree.

"When I walked up and saw her laying there unconscious, I thought, this could be really bad, a life-changing experience, and I hope it isn't," Mackey said.

Elizabeth's was the second sledding fatality in Southcentral Alaska this year. Noval Matteson, 5, of Wasilla, died Jan. 2 after the sled he was riding slammed into a truck on Hatcher Pass Ski Area Road.

People often think of sledding as innocent fun for kids, said Joan Diamond, an injury prevention specialist with the city. They don't realize that sledding leads to more traumatic brain injuries than more aggressive Alaska wintertime activities like hockey or snowmachining.

"Blows to the head can be minor and still have severe damage," Diamond said. "We've been slowly moving toward regulations that put helmets on kids' heads, that put seat belts in place, so that the public of Alaska will accept it. But rarely do we see kids with helmets sledding. Almost never. It's what the public sees as the least dangerous."

The day Elizabeth got hurt, Mackey said, Junior Nordic had suggested folks bring sleds as part of the last-day festivities.

"Her friends said, 'Elizabeth, come sled with us,' and I said, 'If you want to sled, I'll take your skis and go get them in the car,' " Mackey said.

Friends later told him that the girls took their foam plastic sled down the right or west side of the hill. It was less busy.

The girl riding in front put her feet out to act as brakes. The girl in back knelt and put her boot toes against the snow. Elizabeth sat in between, perhaps cross-legged.

"This is not flying at 30 miles per hour down the hill, out of control," Mackey said. "As it was described to me, they were going like walking speed."

The sled started to veer toward the cottonwoods maybe because the girls had their feet in the snow. The tree Elizabeth hit probably was six inches in diameter, he said.

"Where the point of impact was, I don't know that a helmet would have saved her life," Mackey said. "It probably would have lessened her injuries. But it was on a lower part of her head. Right in back of her ear. And there were no external injuries at all. She looked perfectly normal. There wasn't a speck of blood on her."

Diamond said it isn't uncommon for a child to look fine after a head injury one that can lead to serious lasting results or death. And it doesn't have to be a massive impact to be fatal, she said.

When the brain bounces inside the skull, it tears and swells, "just like you'd picture your ankle when you turn it," Diamond said. "But there's nowhere for (the brain) to go because it's encased in a skull."

The law probably won't ever require helmets while sledding, Diamond said. But she wishes groups would demand it when sponsoring events.

Terry Kadel, Girdwood Fire Department's assistant EMS chief, said helmets would prevent or alleviate almost every head injury that his agency responds to, from sledding to skiing to snowboarding.

He's trying to launch a deal at Alyeska Resort where kids could get a cheaper lift ticket if they wear helmets.

"These are probably the highest traumatic injuries in the state for kids that are preventable," Kadel said. "Mostly it's people taking jumps, landing, and hitting heads when they land. Another percentage (of injuries) is people might get hit by other skiers or snowboarders. And of course you get the less skilled who catch an edge and fall directly on their head."

There is a fairly clear, safe hill at Russian Jack, but a steeper slope drew Elizabeth and her friends. It channels some sleds straight to the trees.

On Monday, 10 days after Elizabeth's accident, the park was flush with children sledding, many for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

The route Elizabeth took is now taped off. The trees where her sled ended up were buffered with hay bales. Two men stood sentry below.

Signs directed sledders to use the less severe, left-hand route. Posted rules cautioned, "Sledding can cause severe injury," warning kids to "sled at your own risk" and wear helmets.

Mackey said Elizabeth an active and athletic girl always wore a helmet skiing and hounded her older sister to do the same.

"But I've never seen a kid sled with a helmet on in my life," he said.

Elizabeth was officially pronounced dead early Thursday at Providence, family at her side. During the ordeal, she woke up once.

"About 18 hours after the accident, she had suddenly sat up in her hospital bed and tried to pull off the ventilator and she opened her eyes," Mackey said. "That was a really encouraging sign, it seemed, and it just made it that much harder."

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Daily News reporter Katie Pesznecker can be reached at kpesznecker@adn.com.