Mountain accident victim is transferred

Though Reifenstein is now fitted with a body brace, surgery may not be necessary

Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A day after rescue crews carried him down Mount Roberts with a bone crushed in his back and two bones broken in his neck, George Reifenstein said he felt blessed.

"If I hadn't been packed properly (by the rescue team), I wouldn't be wiggling my toes and my hands," the 55-year-old Mount Roberts Tramway general manager said Tuesday from a warm hospital bed at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He was flown there after being taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Tuesday he was fitted for a body brace before being taken in for more X-rays. The doctors said it is possible that he might not need surgery, he said. If that's the case, he could be back to Juneau within one week and recover in 12 weeks.

The outpouring of support from Juneau has meant a lot to him, he said. He deeply appreciates everything done for him since he called 911 in excruciating pain, thinking he had just punctured a lung after falling, he said.

"I can't say enough about the (rescue) team," said Reifenstein, who trains with many of the people who rescued him as a volunteer captain with Capital City Fire and Rescue. In the steady rain, "it was difficult for everybody." The department's Rope Rescue Team and Juneau Mountain Rescue took part in the operation overseen by the fire department's chief, Eric Mohrmann.

Reifenstein said the fall on the mountain could have killed him. If he hadn't tightened his helmet 10 minutes before the fall while rappelling down the mountain, it probably would have, he added. "The helmet's toast. It's retired."

He explained that Monday he was inspecting a water pipe he believed was damaged by a falling tree. The pipe takes water up and sewage down while also supplying electricity to the operations up the mountain.

Other employees were coming up from the bottom, he said. "I just needed to get down this last little pitch." He believes he was at the 800- to 900-foot level of the mountain.

He said he reached down for a rope he thought was secured, but it wasn't attached to anything. He landed on a rock with the middle of his back and hit his head.

From there, he said, he went head over heels, about 40 or 50 feet before grabbing an alder bush.

"The pain was excruciating," he said. "I couldn't lie down."

Nine meters of rope in Reifenstein's pack probably saved his life by padding the fall, along with the helmet, preventing worse back injuries, he said.

Tram employees who first attended him did their job well, as did the emergency medical technicians who prepared him to be brought down, he said. It was more than four hours after his injuries before he was loaded into the warm, dry ambulance. He said the rescue team couldn't have brought him down any faster.

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