Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Even in the best conditions, Benny Abruzzo admits that striding from one of the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway towers onto the top of a tram car is a “gulp” step.
But what if you have just climbed up that tower’s 80-foot ladder in slippery, frigid conditions in an effort to rescue 20 people who have been trapped in that car, dangling at an elevation of 8,750 feet, for hours.
“That tower was covered in six inches of ice,” said Abruzzo, 63, owner of the tramway, the Sandia Peak Ski Area and Sandia Peak’s TEN 3 restaurant. “I had to break the ice free of the rungs, and the winds are blowing it into your face so you turn into this big frozen thing.”
The people trapped in the car were 19 employees of TEN 3 and a tram operator. They were descending on the tram late Friday night when icy weather caused the tram cables to tangle, stalling the tram cars. Also trapped was a single tramway employee on his way up to the peak in another car.
Abruzzo and Paul Johnson, area manager of Sandia Peak Ski Area, started hiking up to the tramway’s No. 2 tower before dawn on Saturday. Abruzzo said they reached the tower some time between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Abruzzo made that two-foot step from the tower onto the roof of the car and opened the hatch on the car’s roof.
“They were kind of surprised and very happy to see the boss open the hatch,” Abruzzo said. “I said, ‘We got you.’ They all cheered and roared. There was laughter.”
Plans in place
Larry Koren is undersheriff and a helicopter pilot with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. He was on his morning walk at 6 a.m. Saturday when he was notified about the people trapped on the tram cars.
“I got a ride back to my house and I was at the (helicopter) hangar at Double Eagle II Airport about 7 a.m.,” Koren, 54, said.
For several years, BCSO has worked with the tramway to devise rescue tactics to deal with tram cars hung up on the tram cables. One such strategy involves moving people from the car onto a helicopter in flight. But Saturday’s conditions would not allow that.
“There were high winds, low visibility and icing,” Koren said. “Those are real concerns for flying operations.”
Koren found a place to land the copter about 100 feet or so from the base of the No. 2 tower.
The plan was now to lower the trapped passengers on a rope 65 feet to the ground. From there, they would walk to the copter, which would transport them to the tramway parking area at the base of the Sandias.
Meanwhile, Abruzzo’s son, Ben, 43, and mountain guide John Kear had joined Benny Abruzzo and Johnson in the rescue effort.
Benny Abruzzo said the people trapped in the car were cold, thirsty and hungry.
“We brought everything you can imagine – food, water, blankets, jackets, hot tea,” Benny Abruzzo said. “They ate all the food, drank all the water. My son and I were the last out of car one and there was just one (protein) bar, a couple of waters and a down jacket left.”
He said the trapped passengers ranged in age from teenagers and those in their early 20s to people in their 50s. They were servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers and people in senior management.
Secured in a harness, they stepped one by one out of the tram car door and were lowered to the ground by rescue workers.
“Some were waving, some were taking pictures,” Benny Abruzzo said.
Koren said the distance from the No. 2 tower to the copter was not far, but it was steep and slippery. Once those rescued from the first tram car arrived, he began flying them to the base parking lot in twos, threes and fours.
“They were in great spirits,” Koren said. “I’ve never seen a happier group of people. It took about 45 minutes to get those 20 people off (the mountain). We got that done about 1 p.m.”
One to go
But there was still the one person, the tramway employee, to get down.
“He was way up, mid-span between the towers,” Koren said. “He was in worse condition than the others because he did not have the benefit of people around him for warmth and morale.”
And then the weather turned sour again.
“We got socked in with that weather and had to put down and wait a bit,” Koren said.
“The weather was crazy,” Benny Abruzzo said. “In all my years, I have never seen a storm with that kind of punch and have never seen that ice development. The Sandia cliff faces were plastered in ice.”
The time during which the weather kept the copter on the ground was actually needed to move the second car to the No. 2 tower. The cars could go backward, but not forward.
“We were moving it inches at a time,” Benny Abruzzo said. “We had to creep that car back and get him out of there. He had at least been equipped with warm clothes and a sleeping bag. It was OK, but not great.”
By 3:45 p.m., the tramway employee had been lowered from the second tram car and taken by helicopter to safety.
“This was an effort by a lot of search and rescue stakeholders,” Koren said. “We have had more urgent missions, people with broken legs, broken backs, heart attacks. But this was a mission that was important to accomplish.”
Benny Abruzzo is the son of the late Benjamin L. “Ben” Abruzzo, who was part of the three-man team that made the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon in 1978.
Benny said Saturday’s rescue was a job that called on skills he has developed throughout his life.
“I am an ice climber, a rock climber and a mountaineer, and all those skills came in handy,” he said. “It was difficult, but well within the things I have done before.”