The avalanche struck at a time before weather forecasting and avalanche-control methods were refined. Fifty people were rescued and three people were killed.
An icy winter storm that forced Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass to close Wednesday is a reminder of the well-trafficked route’s mercurial nature.
At the pass, moist and warm Pacific air clashes with a bitter cold eastern flow, producing rain, snow and everything in between. Temperatures and freezing levels yo-yo throughout the winter. That variability is a recipe for avalanches, ice storms and toppled trees.
These days, advances in weather forecasting and snow science, new construction and dedicated highway avalanche control make crossing the pass seem almost routine. Extended closures are rare.
The 1936 Snoqualmie Pass avalanche tragedy, when three people were killed and 50 had to be rescued, shows how far we’ve come.
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Back then, I-90’s precursor, called the Sunset Highway, traveled over the pass, following a wagon road and Indian trail that predated it.
The first automobile made it over the pass in 1905 and by 1931, snow removal equipment allowed the Sunset Highway to remain open year-round, according to HistoryLink.
But five years later, a series of avalanches would bury more than a mile of the highway on Feb. 22, 1936.
“The main slide cascaded down with a thunderous roar. … It covered the highway ten feet deep,” The Seattle Times reported.
Rescuers used “long rods” to probe the snow in search of buried people.
“Whenever they struck the roof of an automobile or truck they would dig straight down from 5 to 30 feet, to rescue the imprisoned occupants,” the Times reported the next day.
Two men were found dead in the cab of a truck buried in the snow.
“The windows were broken, either by snow or by the men in a desperate attempt to escape,” The Times reported. The trapped men might have been asleep on the roadside when the avalanche struck. A third victim was found under 30 feet of snow.
Miraculously, highway workers were able to save dozens of people who had been trapped in their vehicles since before dawn.
Twenty-three people in a bus bound for Spokane were dug out by highway workers after being buried under tons of snow.
One man was rescued after seven hours in the snow. He had been outside his truck when the slide hit, and became trapped beneath it.
Luckily, “a few cubic feet of space beneath the truck chassis remained unfilled with snow. He could not move, but breathed the precious air under the truck as rescuers dug frantically high above him.”
The man had bruises and fractured ribs.
“I felt terribly exhausted and numb when they got me,” he told the Times. “I couldn’t even tell if I was cold. I was awfully numb — couldn’t feel my feet or hands at all.”
He fared relatively well, considering the length of his exposure.
“Many of the victims were ill and frostbitten. All were weak from lack of air and from the shock of being buried for hours in their cars,” the Times reported.
It took almost 33 hours for plows to tunnel through the snow blanketing the highway.
“Many were the sensations of those who looked on while men and their machines fought nature’s tremendous forces in Snoqualmie Pass yesterday,” the Times wrote. “The havoc wrought by the tons of snow sent hurtling down hillsides was comparable only to the havoc wrought aboard a ship caught in a hurricane.”