Members of church group "Count Their Many Blessings"
JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. – The ride from Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Rigby, Idaho, usually takes under two hours. But, for Holly Galbraith and the seven young women traveling with her last Saturday, the day was not what they expected.
Galbraith, a 35-year old youth leader, gave herself extra time that morning allowing for slick road conditions as the group set out for an Especially for Youth church activity.
Galbraith and her group of girls are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Jackson Hole 2nd ward. The group included Marianne Galbriath, 15; Heather Banack,16; Emily Fairbanks, 13; and four sisters — Sky and Star Roney, both 17, Maya Roney,16 and Sage Roney, 14.
The extra time would not matter Saturday as the Suburban they were driving hit ice at a notoriously dangerous spot on Pine Creek Pass. The vehicle began to slide, crashing through the guardrail and falling more than 150 feet into the icy creek below.
The group's bishop, Michael Redzich, who was driving just 20 minutes ahead said "he cannot remember worse driving conditions."
The vehicle landed upright in the water and with all eight passengers alert and conscious. The group quickly assessed themselves and each other. It was obvious that some had sustained severe injuries including Emily Fairbanks and Sage Roney, who were sitting in the rear of the vehicle where there was extensive damage.
Together the group offered a prayer for comfort, strength and rescue. Then, because there was no cell phone service, 15-year-old Marianne Galbraith decided to try and go for help. She freed herself from the vehicle and, wearing a skirt and dress shoes, she waded through icy water halfway up her calves and attempted to climb up the side of the ravine.
"She said it was just too slick and steep," said Marianne's father, Aaron Galbraith. "But, someone had stopped on the road above. They yelled down to her that they had called 911."
Marianne returned to the group and they waited. With the vehicle's windows broken out and temperatures below freezing, the girls gathered what few jackets they had with them, covered those nearest to the windows and tried to huddle as close together as possible for warmth.
"The nightmare really started when the car came to a stop," said Maya Roney. "It was so cold and people were screaming. Some of the girls were pinned."
Maya was seated in the middle seat and both her feet were pinned. She could feel a purse under the seat and stuck her bare feet into it to try to keep them warm. Kirk says his daughters could hear their younger sister Sage behind them but could not see her or get to her.
"There was such terror in not being able to help her," said Maya.
The group tried to pass the time by singing some of their favorite church hymns.
Holly says she remembers the moment one of the girls started singing "Count Your Many Blessings" and was deeply touched as the others joined in.
"Those girls are just amazing –– I couldn't believe where we were and what was happening –– and they were singing about their blessings."
When help arrived, the four most seriously injured were loaded onto backboards and moved to an area where an elaborate makeshift pulley system had been constructed. They were pulled up the mountain on a high-line. The others were harnessed and helped up the cliff by foot.
Emily and Sage were airlifted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls where Sage underwent surgery for facial fractures, broken bones in her arms and a severed tendon in her arm.
"We just found out Sage also has two stable fractures in her back, said her father. "Her tendon that holds the eyelid to the nose was severed and there was no nose bone left to attach it to-- so they attached it to a screw. They had to basically re-form her nose. She is whispering answers now and we are hopeful that she will be released from the hospital this weekend."
Emily, the most severely injured of the teenagers, was flown to EIRMC and then to Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she is being treated for a punctured lung and multiple fractures including five vertebral fractures and broken ribs. Doctors removed her breathing tube Monday and she is now awake and alert but remains in ICU.
Holly underwent surgery in Jackson Hole on Tuesday for multiple vertebral fractures.
The others were transported by ambulance to EIRMC where they were all treated and released the same day with minor physical injuries.
When rescuers arrived at the scene, the task of evacuation was monumental. It took over 35 workers and more than five hours to get everyone safely evacuated. First responders didn't have blankets so they immediately started taking off their own shoes, socks and jackets.
"They were willing to give us whatever they had," said Holly.
"So many people have helped," said Kirk. "I heard the first on the scene had cuts and was pretty bruised up. We are just so grateful to so many people. The event was so traumatic, there are a lot of emotions to deal with. But everything is fixable."
What was meant to be an 85-mile day trip has turned into a much longer journey than anyone expected. The road of rehabilitation will be long for Emily, Sage, and Holly, but Galbraith and her group of girls along with family and friends say they will continue to "count their many blessings".