Hiker died shielding wife, friend from blizzard

June 13, 2008 8:26:09 AM PDT
A hiker who lost his life on Mount Rainier lay down in the snow and used his body's warmth to protect his wife and a friend from the 70-mph winds of a freak June blizzard, national park officials said.When it became obvious the trio could not find their way back to base camp in whiteout conditions, they dug a snow trench with their hands. Eduard Burceag, 31, lay down in the snow while his wife and friend lay on top of him. Later, when they begged him to switch places, Burceag refused, saying he was OK.

"In doing so, he probably saved their lives," park spokesman Kevin Bacher said Thursday.

Mariana Burceag, also 31, survived the storm, as did the couple's friend, Daniel Vlad, 34.

Eduard Burceag was just one of the heroes.

When the call came at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to the Camp Muir base camp, saying three hikers were missing in a blizzard, the National Park Service ranger in charge of rescue operations had little hope they would survive the night.

Kevin Hammonds, 28, described the storm as the worst he had ever seen during his years of hiking and mountain climbing: wind blowing hard enough to knock you off your feet and zero visibility, making it impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

"The fact that any of them made it is noteworthy," Hammonds said Thursday.

His lack of optimism didn't stop Hammonds and a fellow ranger, Joe Franklin, from preparing a search party to head out at first light.

Around 5:30 a.m., Franklin was checking the horizon for any clues to the location of the missing hikers, all natives of Romania who were living in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb.

He saw what looked like a boulder in an unusual spot on the snowfield, then took a closer look with binoculars and realized the shape was moving.

Hammonds grabbed two mountain guides who had stayed the night at Camp Muir, about 10,000 feet up the 14,410-foot mountain, and headed out toward Vlad. Walking through knee-deep, blowing snow, it took about 10 minutes to meet him halfway.

Bacher called Vlad a hero, for his determination to get help.

"It wasn't that he had the physical stamina to do it, but he had the mental will," Bacher said.

One guide helped Vlad back to Camp Muir after directing Hammonds and Eben Reckord of International Mountain Guides toward the Burceags.

"We were able to, more or less, find them right away because he had given us such a good description," Hammonds said. "They would have actually been hard for us to find without his guidance. Where they were definitely was not in eyeshot of camp."

Mariana Burceag was conscious but not coherent, said Hammonds, a trained emergency medical technician. Eduard Burceag was unconscious; they couldn't find a pulse.

"The two of us had to make a decision that she needed our immediate attention," Hammonds said. "It was obvious to us, that ... if left there much longer, she would probably be in the same shape he was."

Hammonds' training told him they had to focus on the person most likely to survive.

They put a second down jacket on Mariana Burceag, placed her in a sleeping bag and onto a sleeping pad, covered her with a small tent and started to drag the whole package toward Camp Muir.

They got about 100 feet closer to the camp before Hammonds and Reckord realized they needed more help. Four more guides answered their call with oxygen, another sleeping bag and a sled. It took another hour for six people to get Mariana Burceag to shelter.

Then the rescuers went back for Eduard Burceag. Perhaps another hour passed before they got him to shelter; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Hammonds said the three were experienced hikers ? both Eduard Burceag and Vlad had summited Rainier in the past ? and were dressed properly for a spring hike in warm winter jackets, wool hats and gloves, and sturdy boots.

Thick clouds prevented a helicopter evacuation that day. An Army chopper rescued Mariana Burceag and Vlad from the peak Wednesday morning. They were treated for frostbite at a Seattle hospital and released. Eduard Burceag's body was brought down the mountain on a sled Wednesday afternoon.

The Pierce County medical examiner's office confirmed Thursday night that he died of hypothermia.

Reached by telephone in Romania, Eduard Burceag's brother, Cristian, told The Seattle Times his older brother moved to the United States eight years ago and fell in love with Seattle, its mountains, its opportunities.

Cristian Burceag said his mother was visiting his brother and was watching their two young sons while Eduard and Mariana hiked to Camp Muir.

He said he was not surprised his brother died shielding his wife from the blizzard.

"He was a hero for us," the younger Burceag said. "I'm sure he would do that. He knew very well that his children needed a lot of their mother and that was the main thing in his life."

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