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Boy Found Dead, Bringing Death Toll in Montana Avalanche to Five

January 1, 1994

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ A frantic search for a 7-year-old Canadian boy buried in an avalanche ended sadly Saturday with the discovery of his body. The death of Miles Merrill brought the death toll to five.

The boy’s body was found at 1 p.m., about 24 hours after he and six others were caught by the avalanche during a snowmobiling outing on Friday.

Miles and three other victims were from Cardston, Alberta, just north of the border.

The agricultural town of 3,500 residents was in shock, Cardston Mayor Fred Spackman said. Flags were lowered to half-staff.

Miles’ body was found beneath the snow by a rescuer using a 10-foot probe, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department said. Search dogs had also been used.

Miles’ father, Jamie Merrill, suffered hypothermia when he was caught in the avalanche. He was with the searchers Saturday, but it wasn’t known if he was at the hillside when his son’s body was found. He has refused to talk to reporters.

Miles’ mother was in Canada.

Both survivors, Merrill and snowmobiler Sandy Sherman, who suffered broken ribs and other injuries, were found within two hours of the avalanche.

It wasn’t known if Miles was killed by the force of the slide, which covered an area 100- by 400-feet wide, or he suffocated under the snow.

Kim Potter, director of emergency services in Flathead County, said about 50 people searched at the scene, about 6,000 feet up the Swan Range, some 15 miles east of Kalispell. Another 40 to 50 people were at a command post some miles away.

Falling snow reduced hillside visibility to only a few feet Saturday, and the mountainous terrain hindered radio communication. During the search, Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont complained, ″God’s not cooperating.″

The sheriff’s office turned down a flood of volunteers who offered to help. Only people trained in avalanche work were allowed to participate, Dupont said.

Searchers used portable generators to power lights and worked until 4 a.m. The search resumed at 8 a.m.

Earlier, Potter described the methodical search.

″On the probe line, shoulder to shoulder with long poles, they’re probing in front of the left foot first, then the right, then in the middle and stepping forward to repeat the process.″

Killed were Mrs. Sherman’s husband, Gordon Sherman, a 47-year-old Cardston rancher whose herds included exotic animals such as caribou; Bart Nelson, a 35-year-old Cardston farmer; and Kendall Smith, 40, who ran a salt business in Cardston with his brother. Also killed was Patrick Buls, 46, from Kalispell, a town of about 12,000 in northwestern Montana.

Fourteen snowmobilers had teamed up Friday to go to Strawberry Lake. One group led the way through fresh, powdery snow, then pulled off while the others broke trail, officials said.

The trailbreakers included Jim Pierce of Bigfork, who said he saw the snow break loose and overcome the group that had pulled over to wait. The avalanche stopped before reaching Pierce’s party.

He used a cellular telephone to call for help and members of his group began searching for their companions. Pierce and another rider rode 2 1/2 miles to the trailhead to guide searchers to the slide.

Stan Bone, an avalanche specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the slide occurred after 24 to 30 inches of new snow fell on top of a solid snowpack covered with hoarfrost. The feathery crystals of the hoarfrost prevented the snow layers from bonding, making it easier for the new snow to slide away.

It was the deadliest avalanche in Montana since 1969, when five climbers were buried in nearby Glacier National Park while trying to ascend Mount Cleveland.