by John J. St. John
Back in the mid-1980’s, the State Department’s Public Affairs Bureau had a particularly active Speakers Outreach Program. Its people were always bugging the rest of us to get out from behind our desks and educate the American public about all the good things we in the Foreign Service did every day to earn our exorbitant salaries. A few of us actually enjoyed these breaks from routine, and participated at every opportunity. Others ducked under the desk whenever they saw the PA guy coming around.
If you thought I was one of that first group, you would be wrong. Sure, I agreed with the idea in principle, but public speaking was never numbered among my greatest talents. And over the years, I usually needed every one of those minutes behind the desk to get my main job done.
But on this day in early March 1985, PA guy snuck silently into my office while I was experiencing a rare “perfect storm” of lethargy and empty in-box. Even worse, his offer was one I couldn’t possibly refuse: it had been a dreary, wet winter in Washington, and the proposed gig would take me to Salt Lake City, the epicenter of one of the best and most varied ski areas in the United States. PA guy sensed me sniffing the bait, so he moved quickly to set the hook. My main task, he explained, would be to deliver a mere half-hour talk at the monthly dinner of a prominent Mormon service organization, but he could also arrange interviews at two newspapers and a radio station, thereby extending my stay for two or three days of skiing. As if that weren’t already enough, PA guy was unaware that a family friend was spending a sabbatical year in Salt Lake City doing research at the university there, and had already offered lodging if Elsa and I were ever able to visit.
So, trying my best to appear the put-upon reluctant warrior accepting hardship for the sake of my country, I agreed to undertake this demanding mission.
I didn’t know all that much about Mormonism back then (and, in fact, am not all that knowledgeable about it even now). But I did know that the great majority of Utah’s population belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (to use its formal name) and I was also vaguely aware that the LDS Church was headed by a group of twelve elderly men known as “the Twelve Apostles”. It was with some interest then, that I noted my audience, seated with me around a large conference table, was all male, and all well past middle age. And although I felt unable to conduct a head count without being obvious about it, they appeared to number about twelve. So, to this day I really don’t know who they were. But I do know my performance that evening was about on a par with my usual public speaking standard, and I have occasionally wondered if, when Judgment Day arrives, St. Peter will have any special verdict to render for my having bored to death this particular group of elders.
The next morning, I zipped through my three interviews with the media, feeling that all three had gone much better than the main event the previous evening. By early afternoon I was on my way to Park City, where I enjoyed a glorious afternoon of skiing, my first since leaving Geneva the previous year.
The following day I arose early, and headed for Cottonwood Canyon – no more than twenty minutes drive from Salt Lake City -- where I could choose from among two or three different ski areas. At the recommendation of several people, I chose Alta – said to be the best ski bargain in the country, with lift tickets less than half the price of elsewhere. Again following recommendations, I pulled into the parking lot of a ski lodge named “The Gold Miner’s Daughter”, which was located quite close to the first lift. Despite my early arrival, I was disappointed to see that the lot was nearly full. The best parking spot I could find was at least fifty yards distant from the hotel and the path that ran alongside it to the lift. Ski boots are designed for skiing; definitely not for comfortable walking.
I soon put that discomfort out of my mind, as the day was turning out to be spectacular. The sun was bright, the sky a rich, cloudless blue. The air crisp, clean and comfortable, with a soft scent of pine, and the crunch of perfect snow under my feet. A day that makes one feel joy in just being alive.
When the base chair lift reached the end of its run, I skied immediately over to the next; on such an ideal day, it made no sense to start anywhere but at the top. Chair lifts, being open to the weather, can often be a frostbitten curse. On days like this, however, they are one of the great, unheralded joys of this sport. You glide upwards in near-complete silence, captivated by the winter mountain scenery; the only sound the soft whoosh of skiers carving turns beneath you. The man in the chair’s second seat remarked about the magnificent day; I responded politely, but not in a way that might encourage conversation. I did not want to break the mountain’s contemplative spell, but I also had been warned that Mormons are required to “spread the word” about their religion, and to seek converts anywhere they reasonably can. It is not unusual, I was told, to see two skiers deep in conversation at the top of a lift, and to see them still there when you come back up for another run. Although this tale struck me as a bit far-fetched, I certainly did not want to be in that position today.
Coming off a chair lift at its top demands a bit of concentration, especially if you have not skied for some time. Timing and balance are important, and a small error can easily lead to injury, both for yourself and for others. I was properly focused, and made a good, clean exit. But then, as I was starting a hard left turn into the downhill run, I caught sight of a pair of skiers standing off to my right, deep in serious conversation. The realization that this might be confirmation of my friend’s “far-fetched” story was enough to divert my attention; one ski suddenly slipped off the snow, and the other started to follow it. Luckily, my Swiss ski training clicked back in, and I was able to right myself and continue on without incident. I enjoyed the run enough to go back up for another shot at it. And yes, there at the top of the lift, were the same two men, still deep in conversation.
The rest of the morning went the same way. An amazing, stunning, fabulous, extravagant, five-star day. Somewhere around 1pm, I was getting hungry – and, indeed, a bit tired – so I decided to make my way down to the Gold Miner’s Daughter to have lunch before returning to the slopes.
By the time I had nearly reached the hotel, I realized I was a great deal more than just “a bit” tired. My legs were out of skiing shape and getting rubbery. I was reaching – no, I had reached – the point at which any more skiing that day could be dangerous. So I sat down on a convenient log, took off my skis, opened my boots, hoisted the skis onto my shoulder and started walking towards my rental car. The first row of cars, where I had initially hoped to park, was some five feet to my left. The attractively crafted stone wall of the “Gold Miner’s Daughter” was about eight feet to my right. My quads were throbbing as I turned left between the rows of cars, and headed for mine, still some forty yards distant.
Reaching the car, I started fastening my skis onto its roof rack, when I heard a deep, but very loud WHUMP! from behind me, followed instantaneously by a deafening C R A C K! I whirled around, and saw a huge dust cloud engulfing the hotel and moving in my direction. Debris of all kinds began raining down around me. A mangled aluminum window frame fell at my feet. Something hard hit my hand and drew blood. A fine grayish-white dust began to cover me and the cars. I turned and ran until I had cleared the debris fall. Two young women were standing there with horror-stricken expressions. One, tearful, pointed and said, “There are people in there!” I turned and looked towards what had been a hotel. About a third of it was still standing, although it appeared to be a shell. The rest was simply gone.
I wondered what I could do to help, and realized that the answer was probably nothing. In the distance, a siren signaled that help was already on the way. I realized that the best service I could contribute was to get my rental car out of there to provide more space for emergency vehicles.
On the narrow road out of Cottonwood Canyon, a number of fire engines and ambulances sped past me, sirens screaming, on their way in. On reaching the main road to the City, I stopped at a gas station and phoned the three reporters who had interviewed me the previous day, and gave them a first-hand report on what I had seen.
The newspapers the next day front-paged the story, with some very impressive color pictures. They reported early speculation that the source of the massive explosion was a large propane tank, an opinion later confirmed by investigation. The only good news was that the day had been so beautiful that nearly everybody at the hotel, guests and employees alike, had been out skiing, so there were only two deaths and five injuries.
I don’t recall ever having accepted any more missions from Public Affairs.
© 2007 John J. St. John