By BRAD WONG
At 1:25 p.m. the call came in to Eastside Dispatch.
"This is an emergency! We were on a hike on Lake Melakwa, and my kids were in a snow cave, and it collapsed on them!"
Joni Corbett's call to save her 17-year-old son, Alec, and his 14-year-old friend Alessandro Gelmini set in motion a frantic rescue effort in the Cascades to save the two teens trapped under huge chunks of ice.
"Are you sending somebody?" Corbett asked. "They're going to die! Are you sending somebody?"
Soon Becky McCracken and her fellow operators at the dispatch center had done just that. Firefighters, sheriff's deputies and helicopter crews were speeding to Snoqualmie Pass where an ice ledge had collapsed. The boys had vanished.
And this time, the resources, timing, weather and more than a little luck fell into place for a miraculous rescue.
On Friday, Alec Corbett, who suffered a broken back, underwent surgery at Harborview Medical Center. He was listed in satisfactory condition.
Alessandro Gelmini was in serious condition with a fractured back, as well as ankle and facial injuries. Doctors also performed surgery on him.
The boys were lucky. Lucky that they had been battered and broken by ice but not smothered by snow or drowned by water. Lucky that with all the high-tech gear that their rescuers brought -- including a thermal-imaging device -- they also carried with them chain saws that would be key to their survival. And lucky that a Navy pilot had the skill to pull them out of a mountain canyon.
The boys spent more than five hours under the icy pile near a chilly stream. Immediately after the collapse, nearby hikers used rocks and sticks to dig. The ice, though, was impenetrable.
At her office, McCracken listened to Joni Corbett and typed the information she gave into a computer, which relayed it to terminals in fire trucks that were heading to the scene.
"She was able to tell me where they started from and the nearest lake where they were headed to and we have maps here," McCracken said Friday.
Sgt. John Urquhart of the King County Sheriff's Office pointed out that the mom's 911 call from her cell phone fortunately went to the closest emergency dispatch office -- the one in Bellevue.
"When you're on a cell phone, it's a crapshoot where it's going to get routed," he said.
McCracken kept Corbett and Alessandro's mother, Chrissy, on the line, carefully extracting information bit by bit, leading them from the Denny Creek trailhead to the ice ledge. She kept them calm and safe.
At one point, she had to reason with Joni Corbett to get her from trying to go into what remained of the cave to find the boys.
Firefighters from Snoqualmie Pass Fire & Rescue were the first to respond to the area near Melakwa Falls.
The problem: They didn't know the boys' exact location.
After crews from Eastside Fire & Rescue arrived, about a half-dozen firefighters grabbed axes and shovels and spent about 45 minutes hiking up a steep path.
They found the boys, interviewed Joni Corbett and started digging, said Snoqualmie Pass Fire & Rescue Chief Matt Cowan.
"But they were getting worn out and not making quick headway," he said.
The ice was a strong foe against axes and shovels.
At the command base, emergency leaders began drafting a more exhaustive rescue plan.
The Eastside Fire & Rescue's battalion chief ordered a seven-member technical rescue team to the pass. They left from stations in Sammamish, Issaquah and Carnation.
Given the steep hike to where the boys were trapped, leaders focused their conversations on equipment, said Eastside Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Jeff Griffin.
"If we don't bring it, we won't have it," he said.
So, they brought almost everything that they thought they would need.
Lt. Dean deAlteriis, the department's technical rescue team leader for the day, carried a chain saw on his back. So did a rookie firefighter, Griffin said.
Others, including King County search-and-rescue team members, brought climbing ropes.
Firefighters took special single-wheeled stretchers loaded with gear.
They also carried chains, fuel and oil to ensure those chain saws worked.
Firefighters who remained at the command post gave up their heavy clothing in case rescuers at the site became wet and needed to stay warm.
Urquhart, who was at the post Thursday, said the result might have been different if a snow cave -- not an ice cave -- had crumpled.
"When this collapsed, it collapsed in blocks," he said.
"There were spaces in between that allowed them to breathe."
At the rescue site, crews at first did not hear sound from the boys.
But as they were digging and using the chain saws to cut through 7- to 10-foot thick pieces of ice, one rescuer thought he heard a voice.
Back at Eastside Dispatch, McCracken and her colleagues let out cheers of joy as they
realized crews had talked to one boy.
They cheered again when rescuers realized the second boy was alive.
DeAlteriis was one of the first rescuers to find the boys.
"As we made contact with them, a firefighter said, 'You don't know how lucky you are,' " he said. "They really should play the lottery."
At the command post, emergency officials charted evacuation plans that included using three helicopters and possibly ambulances.
A Navy helicopter that can hoist people from the ground while hovering zoomed from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island to Snoqualmie Pass.
Lt. Cmdr. Nelson Craig, part of a five-man crew, piloted the Knighthawk MH-60 into a canyon. They approached the rescue area about five times.
"What made it challenging was that we were tucked right into a canyon and we had to work around some high trees," Craig said. "It was typical Washington terrain: 150-foot trees and steep canyon walls."
Around 6:45 p.m., the crew hoisted both boys on board. By 7:50 p.m., the helicopter touched down at Harborview as doctors waited in the emergency room.
It had been six hours and 25 minutes since McCracken had answered Joni Corbett's call for help.
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