Visiting teen disappears, likely fell in glacier hole
S.J. KOMARNITSKY, ADN 7/13/99
PALMER - A 17-year-old New Hampshire boy on a guided wilderness training trip on the Matanuska Glacier apparently slipped Sunday and fell to his death down a hole in the ice hundreds of feet deep, Alaska State Troopers said.
Rescue crews were trying to locate Thomas Nazzaro or his body on Monday. An Air National Guard pararescueman was lowered about 100 feet down the icy hole but found no sign of the teen and no hint of the bottom.
"It just goes down for forever," said Trooper Sgt. Rae Arno, one of two officers who flew to the glacier just off the Glenn Highway about 40 miles east of Palmer. "There's no hope of a rescue right now."
Late Monday, troopers were searching the hole with a 250-foot-long fiber-optic cable with a videocamera on the end.
Troopers believe Nazzaro, who was taking part in a monthlong trip conducted by the Palmer branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School, fell down the hole Sunday evening while trying to get water for the group. They found one of his two water pots partially filled near a small glacier stream.
"You can see him thinking, 'I'm never going to fill these pots with this trickle,' " Arno said.
About 50 feet away, a constant stream of ice-cold water poured into a cavity that Arno estimated was about 6 feet wide and 8 feet long. "You can hear the water rushing - the thunderous sound," she said.
It appeared that Nazzaro had walked toward the larger stream, across sloping ice. He may have never seen the hole, which was tucked against the base of an ice wall, she said.
"It's like the way snow hangs off the eaves of a roof," Arno said. "It comes down, then it rounds away and drops away. By the time you see it, it's too late."
Master Sgt. Carl Brooks, one of four pararescueman who helped search for Nazzaro, said "It's like a luge in there."
"It's smooth, and polished slick as can be."
Brooks helped lower Tech Sgt. Eric Taylor down the hole but had to pull him back up after about 20 minutes. He'd gone down 100 feet to where the hole started to narrow to 4 feet wide and, even dressed in a drysuit and wearing neoprene gloves, his hands were nearly numb.
"I can only imagine if you fell in there with regular clothes on," Brooks said.
Nazzaro was from Durham, N.H. His mother was notified of the accident Monday.
The apparent death is the second in the outdoor school's nearly 30-year history in Alaska, branch director Don Ford said. The only other fatality occurred in the early 1970s on a climbing trip on Mount McKinley.
The Wyoming-based outdoor school has eight branches worldwide and offers classes as varied as sea kayaking and mountaineering, Ford said. The Matanuska Glacier is a popular training site because it is easy to get to and is relatively flat. The 27-mile river of ice is born deep in the Chugach Mountains and stretches to within easy view of the Glenn Highway.
Nazzaro, 10 other students and three instructors were nearing the end of a 31-day trip on the glacier. They were camped about three miles up the glacier at the 2,300-foot level and had split into three groups, Ford said.
Two groups of students had gone ahead while the instructors stayed behind, he said. Ford said students frequently are allowed to travel on their own at the end of trip to test their skills, if the instructors think the students are capable.
Nazzaro's group was camping on a flat stretch about 100 feet from the hole, troopers said. He went for water and disappeared around 6 p.m. State troopers had not determined Monday whether he was wearing crampons on his boots, or carrying an ice axe.
When he didn't immediately return, the other students went to look for him, Ford said. They found the pot filled with water but no sign of Nazzaro.
A couple of students then hiked back to the instructors. The students and teachers searched the area, then called for help about 6 a.m. Monday using a hand-held aviation radio. The group doesn't carry cell phones in the area because they don't work well, Ford said.
He said the school plans to have a panel of independent experts review the accident.