More than two dozen people from high school students to bikers in the Southeast Alaska Panhandlers motorcycle club nervously crowded around Gate Four of the departure lounge at the Juneau Airport.
The members of the group chatted, but all the while they kept their eyes down the hall waiting for a special passenger to come off Alaska Airlines Flight 76 Thursday afternoon. Finally someone said, "I see him," and the chatter stopped as Juneau-Douglas High School senior Seth McBride wheeled himself up the ramp into the departure lounge.
McBride, injured while skiing July 17 at Whistler/Blackcomb ski area in British Columbia, was home for the first time since his accident. He'd spent the past three months in Seattle's Harborview Medical Center.
"I'm just glad to be back," McBride said after hugging a couple of the well-wishers. "Three months is quite a long time."
"It's not been the same without Seth," said Andy Griffith, a Juneau student who'd been in Whistler skiing with McBride until the day of the accident.
McBride was a competitive skier with the Juneau Ski Club, but in recent years he'd gravitated toward extreme and freestyle skiing. He'd been free skiing at Whistler, the site of the 2001 World Freestyle Ski Championships, when he went over the jump that changed his life.
McBride's father, Ken McBride, said Seth broke the C5 (cervical), C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck. Seth has no use of his legs now, but he's working on rebuilding his grip and he can push himself around in his wheelchair.
"I went off this jump, but I screwed up and over-rotated and landed on my neck," McBride said. "I remember most of the accident, but some of the hospital stay I can't."
A couple of McBride's well-wishers had been in Whistler skiing about the time of the accident and they said the jump was between 50 and 80 feet high.
McBride spent the first three weeks of his hospital stay in intensive care. Several of his friends stopped by to visit and Ken McBride said Seth's disposition improved as it became closer to the time to come home.
"This last week I've seen more smiles on his face than I've seen in the last three months," Ken McBride said. "It's been quite an ordeal for him."
McBride's mother, Mary, a local teacher, spent nearly the entire three months with her son in Seattle. His older sister, Jessica, was supposed to spend six months attending school in Israel, but canceled the trip so she could stay in Juneau to be closer to her brother.
Mary McBride said the family had to make some modifications to its home, like adding a ramp and moving Seth's bedroom into the former dining room. She said the family was lucky because most of the halls were wide enough for Seth's wheelchair.
Kathleen Rhea, whose son Dylan Fournier has been one of McBride's best friends since they met in preschool, has been organizing a fund-raiser for the McBride family. It will take place from 4:30-7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Hangar Ballroom. There's no admission charge, but there will be a silent auction and people are encouraged to donate what they can to help the McBrides with medical bills.
"We don't know what costs are going to be covered by insurance and what's not," said Rhea, whose can be reached at 789-0693 for more information. "We know there will be a lot of expenses and, other than that, we wanted to make a show of support for the family."
As his flight threaded its way through the mountains to Juneau's airport, McBride's parents said Seth was already talking about getting back on the slopes. He needs to talk to his doctors to find out when he can start skiing again, but he plans to get fitted for a mono-ski similar to the one Juneau's Joe Tompkins uses as a member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.
"He won't let this stop him," Mary McBride said.