ASPEN - Pitkin County will discuss possible enhancements to spectator safety and possibly the welfare of athletes at the Winter X Games with ESPN when a special-use permit for the January 2014 event is reviewed, a county representative said Thursday.
The possibility of the increased review comes after snowmobile contestant Caleb Moore died Thursday from injuries he suffered during the event.
ESPN, which produces the X Games, needs a special-use permit each year to host the event at Buttermilk. Pitkin County's Community Development Department heads the review.
"When we review special-use permits, safety is the top concern," said Mike Kraemer, a planner in the department. "This is our first death in a special event in Pitkin County."
The safety of the Winter X Games is under intense scrutiny from national media because of the death of Moore, 25, who participated in the snowmobile freestyle event when he crashed Jan. 24.
A separate incident during the snowmobile best-trick final Sunday also garnered attention. A participant fell off his sled while trying a big-air jump. The snowmobile landed upright, and the throttle stuck open, sending the machine careening into a fence. The snowmobile was slowed significantly but still came in contact with the knee of a young, male spectator, who was checked out at the scene but wasn't taken to a hospital.
"There's definitely going to be extra discussion" of that specific incident, Kraemer said. "That will be up for discussion with ESPN."
Kraemer said he believes the entire safety-mitigation plan will need to be reviewed for when a snowmobile goes out of control. That includes review to see that adequate fencing is used and whether safety leashes are connected to snowmobile throttles. Those are conditions that Pitkin County doesn't currently review.
Moore's crash occurred when he attempted a backflip on his 450-pound snowmobile. The machine caught the lip of the landing area, and Moore flew over the handlebars and landed face first on the snow. The sled rolled over him.
He was on the ground for a while, then got up and walked off the course with help. He was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital for treatment of a concussion. Doctors discovered bleeding around his heart, and he was flown to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction. There also were "complications" involving his brain, his family said in a statement. The family said Moore died Thursday morning.
The Winter X Games have gone on for 18 years without a death, ESPN noted. The event has been at Buttermilk the past 12 years and is under contract to return in 2014.
County officials don't look at the design of snowmobile courses, superpipes or any type of race courses as part of the special-event permit review.
"We haven't to date but it's not out of the realm of possibility," Kraemer said.
He noted that the county review process does consider safety of the athletes as well as spectators. The approval of the 2013 event included a condition that says, "All X Games athletes shall wear helmets for all events." Another condition requires that all athletes possess insurance.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn't require a permit for the X Games because the event is held on private property near the ski-area base, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams. If the event used public lands, a review and permit would be necessary, he said.
X Games officials said in a statement Thursday that they would conduct a review of freestyle snowmobiling events and adopt any appropriate changes.
"For 18 years, we have worked closely on safety issues with athletes, course designers and other experts," the statement said. "Still, when the world's best compete at the highest level in any sport, risks remain."
ESPN did not respond to a request from The Aspen Times about safety precautions.
Aspen Skiing Co. issued a statement saying it has worked closely with ESPN for the past 12 years.
"ESPN employs the top course designers in their field and works closely with the athletes and other experts," Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said in the statement. "The X Games have an excellent long-term track record, but these sports have inherent risks. The X Games participants are elite athletes who are aware of the risks and undergo rigorous training and preparation to mitigate those risks, but they cannot be totally eliminated.
"We always look to enhance safety and will certainly be working with ESPN to learn what we can from this accident and continue to make adjustments for future events."
When asked if the incident where the out-of-control snowmobile careened into the fence warranted additional scrutiny by Skico and ESPN, Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle replied, "We work with ESPN to debrief the event every year, and we will review this incident during the debrief and make the appropriate adjustments."
Meanwhile, a forensic autopsy will be performed on Moore Friday to determine which of his injuries killed him, said Pitkin County Coroner Steve Ayers.
"He had two really bad injuries, unfortunately," Ayers said.
There was bleeding around the heart, which often proves fatal, Ayers said. He also wants to determine what type of head injuries Moore suffered. The bleeding around the heart could have resulted in cardiac arrest that resulted in lack of oxygen to the brain, according to Ayers.
"He was unconscious immediately, so that resulted in a brain injury, as well," he said. Specialists will likely be called in to help study the brain injuries, according to Ayers.
Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said that it is being determined whether an outside agency might investigate the death.
"We always investigate unattended deaths, but in this case we had many deputies at the venue, and millions of people saw it on television," he said. "This one is very clear: No one else was actively involved (in the crash)."
Ryan said that it's doubtful an outside agency such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could investigate the crash.
"There are lesser-known agencies that could get involved," he said. "We're working on determining who that could be."