CHRISTIE BRINKLEY IS BACK IN HER NATURAL environment, a photo studio in Manhattan. The 40-year-old supermodel, wife of rocker Billy Joel and mother to Alexa, 8, is her usual self, beautiful, assured, almost blindingly sunny. The only visible reminder of her helicopter crash a little more than a week ago is the bandaged splint covering her swollen left wrist. But as she recounts the moment of impact—the chopper smashing down on a peak south of Telluride, Colo., in the San Juan mountain range, transforming a high-flying ski adventure into a seven-hour, high-altitude nightmare—some of the color drains from those cover girl cheeks.
"We just dropped," says Brinkley. "All of a sudden it was like someone cut the cords to the elevator, like the mountain was sucking us in, zooming into us. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, my god, this is really happening. This is not a movie effect. This is not a special effect. This is not a ride in Disney World.' "
It was, in fact, sheer terror—capped with a Good Friday miracle. Brinkley and her friends in the chopper—Ricky Taubman, 45, a Los Angeles real estate developer; Sandra Will Carradine, the founder of Telluride's Sheridan Arts Foundation, who is in her mid-40s and currently separated from actor Keith Carradine; her 11-year-old son, Cade, who lives with her; pilot Tom Sharp, 35; and ski guide Mike Friedman, 37—survived an almost literal cliff-hanger 12,800 feet up with few injuries. "It was amazing that no one was killed," says Gerry Wilcox, 49, a Telluride Ski Patrol leader who assisted in their rescue. The danger was tragically underscored only two days later, when Wall Disney Co. president Frank G. Wells, 62, and two companions were killed in a similar accident while skiing in Nevada (see page 68).
The two disasters demonstrated anew the thin line that separates the heightened pleasures and deadly perils of heli-skiing, in which individuals pay about $500 a day for a crack at skiing's Holy Grail: deep powder and no crowds. The copter, with pilot and guides, transports skiers to a remote peak, then, in Brinkley's case, lifts them back to the top after each run down the mountain.
For skiers, the feeling is heavenly. But the risks are serious, both from avalanches and from helicopter crashes. Frank Bauman, an avalanche expert and former heli-ski service operator, estimates that 40 people have been killed in North America since helicopter skiing caught on 20 years ago. Most operators—including Heli-trax, the Telluride-based outfit that flew Brinkley—insist that clients sign waivers absolving the company from legal responsibility. "Heli-ski tours are not for everyone," warns Mike Friedman, the guide for Brinkley's party and part owner of Heli-trax. "Even with the best helicopter, the best pilots, the most highly trained guides and a philosophy that emphasizes safety, you're dealing with Mother Nature."
For Brinkley, though, it was just the ticket. "I had been listening to all my friends' stories," she says. "They came back from heli-skiing with huge smiles. They kept describing this incredible landscape. They said they didn't know how they would ever ski from a regular ski lift again." Brinkley, vacationing in Telluride with Alexa, snapped up her friend Taubman's invitation to try heli-skiing for the first time. (Joel, her husband of nine years, was in Chicago on tour.)
Before Brinkley and her companions were allowed to fly that morning, Friedman, as was customary, instructed them for 45 minutes about avalanches and other aspects of heli-skiing. "It was very clear this would not be a stroll in the country," says Brinkley, who signed the very specific, and sobering, legal waiver.
The helicopter, piloted by Sharp, lifted off from Telluride Airport at 10 a.m. and flew seven miles southeast toward isolated San Juan peaks. Brinkley crowed with pleasure as they sped over and away from the resort. "I was like, 'Look at the mortals skiing! Earthlings!' " Within minutes, they touched down on a ridge coated with hard-packed snow. Friedman led the four skiers down the 1,000-foot vertical drop. The chopper swooped after them and returned them to the lop. Then they skied down again, exhilarated. "We were flying through this soft powder saying, 'Wow, this is so great!' " remembers Brinkley.
Around 11:15 a.m., the party agreed to try a slightly higher spot nearby—"practically the point of a mountain," says Brinkley, "with a sheer drop." They buckled in for the (light, with Cade on the right, Carradine next to him, Brinkley, then Taubman. Friedman was up front. The wind, which had been light, rose to 20 mph, and the skies were growing cloudy. "But it looked like a pretty standard approach," says Friedman. "We'd landed there hundreds of times this year."
Just before landing, recalls Brinkley, the copter took an unexpected, discomfitingly sharp turn. Another, sharper turn—and she felt her stomach wrench. Then, suddenly, came the abrupt—and so far unexplained—plunge, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The passengers were stony-faced. "No one said anything," says Brinkley. "It happened so fast. There was a tremendous noise, and we landed really hard." The helicopter's landing skis buckled under the impact. Brinkley thought the worst was over. "Alter that, I thought, 'Whew, this is going to be some story to tell!' "
A second later, the chopper began a precipitous, 200-foot tumble down a 40-degree incline—not the slope they'd meant to ski on. It rolled and bounced. "We hit...we rolled," recalls Sandra Carradine, whose head kept smacking into the cabin roof. "The pain was unbelievable."
"Just boom, boom, boom, pow!" says Brinkley. "I would look out the window and see sky-mountain-snow, sky-mountain-snow.'' Carradine was knocked unconscious, and the tail snapped off the helicopter. At some point, Brinkley recalls, she began thinking, "I am going to die. Right now? Like this? A ski trip? Today?" She pauses and smiles weakly. "And I remember thinking, 'Everyone is just going to be furious, me dying like this." Says 11-year-old Cade: "My whole mind went blank. I did think of my dad that minute. He was flying in that day—and here we were crashing."
But as the chopper slid downward, Brinkley became totally focused. "All of a sudden I said, 'Alexa.' I suddenly thought, 'I am her mother, and she needs me. I am not going to die. I refuse. I won't.' With each blow I would call out her name. It was just machinery and me—'Alexa!' Smash! 'Alexa! 'Smash!"
At this point the helicopter began hurling out passengers. Taubman slid out the open door. "I tried to hold him back," Brinkley says, but he slipped from her grip and disappeared into the snow. Then it was her turn. "It was like slow motion," says Brinkley. She landed on her back, squinted up at the sunlight and thought, "I am alive! God!"
Then, Brinkley says, she was terrified to realize that a nylon strap attached to the copter was wrapped around her foot and dragging her down the hill. Luckily, the remains of the chopper slid to a stop, not far from a deep ravine.
Struggling to her feet moments later, all Brinkley could see up the slope was a deeply plowed path and a trail of debris. "I started screaming, "Ricky! Sandra! Ricky! Sandra! Anybody!" she says. "I thought I was the only survivor." Then she saw Cade, struggling in the snow. Taubman was lying immobile farther off. Down by the chopper, Sharp assisted Sandra, the only passenger who hadn't been thrown clear. She had cut her head in the tumble and was murmuring her son's name. Friedman was next to the chopper, calling for rescue assistance on the radio.
Brinkley crawled to Cade, who couldn't use his legs. "I told him to try not to move," she says. "I grabbed hold of him and hugged him and kissed him." Then she washed the blood from his face with handfuls of snow. He asked, "Where is my mom? Is she all right?"
Moments later, Carradine joined them, her head bleeding from a cut. "Christie told me there was a look of sheer terror on my face when I came around to find my son."
The three of them huddled together while Friedman and Sharp helped the barely conscious Taubman, who suffered multiple fractured ribs, a collapsed lung and a broken collarbone. Carradine feared that her son was in danger of hypothermia. "He was fading in and out," she says.
The first rescue helicopter appeared within an hour to survey the wreckage and drop blankets, then flew off to gather rescuers. A second chopper, joining in the effort, arrived not long after. By 3 p.m. a total of 20 rescue workers, members of the Telluride Ski Patrol and the San Miguel Search and Rescue, were swarming on the ground or hovering above.
The first skier to be lifted off was Taubman, who was piloted down on a stretcher, dangling midair, to receive emergency treatment nearby. "He was lapsing in and out of consciousness," says rescuer Gerry Wilcox. "Our No. 1 priority was to gel him off the mountain. He was in a lot of pain." Then, with Friedman leading the way, Brinkley and Carradine climbed with the aid of ropes to the top of the ridge, where the choppers took turns ferrying them back. Cade, because of his suspected back injury, was hauled up after them on a toboggan.
"The entire flight down," says Brinkley, who didn't get off the mountain until just before dark, "I kept turning to the pilot and telling him, I am really sorry but I have to do this'—and then I'd sob." When they landed, "I wanted to hug every person there. Someone handed me a cup of cocoa, and nothing ever lasted so good."
She, Carradine and Cade were taken lo Telluride Medical Center, where daughter Alexa was waiting (she had been staying al the Carradines'). "Seeing my daughter was the sweetest thing in the world," says Brinkley. "Everything I had dreamt of when I was going through the ordeal was that. She came over to me, put her hands on my face and hugged me. I told her I loved her so much." Saturday, Joel arrived to find his wife exhausted and sedated. Brinkley's memories go blurry at this point. "I remember him coming in on a mission to get me home," she says. Now she is back at their oceanfront estate in East Hampton, N.Y., nursing her injuries.
The friends have all spoken long-distance since their ordeal. "I talked to Christie the other night," says Carradine. "I told her then that I love her. I knew if something had happened to me, she would have taken care of my son like her own." Brinkley herself thinks a deeper appreciation of family is one of the lessons of her back-from-the-brink miracle. "Maybe I'll have the patience to be a better mom," she says. "Or maybe I'll go to medical school and become a doctor." When that suggestion is met with a raised eyebrow, she protests, "I am serious!" Then she smiles. "Maybe I will just simplify my life," she says. "Because al the moment everything is so sweet to me."
BRIAN ALEXANDER in New York City and VICKIE BANE in Colorado
- Brian Alexander,
- Vickie Bane.