Hiker sacrificed himself to save his wife on Mount Rainier | AspenTimes.com

Hiker sacrificed himself to save his wife on Mount Rainier

Donna Gordon Blankinship
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

SEATTLE ” A hiker who lost his life high on Mount Rainier lay down in the snow and used his body’s warmth to save his wife and a friend from the 70-mph winds of a freak June blizzard, national park officials say.

When it became obvious the trio of friends could not find their way back to base camp in whiteout conditions, they dug a snow trench with their hands. Then 31-year-old Eduard Burceag lay down on the snow and his wife and a friend lay on top of him. Later, when they begged him to switch places, Burceag refused, saying he was OK.

“In doing so, he probably saved their lives,” park spokesman Kevin Bacher said Thursday.

Mariana Burceag, also 31, survived the storm, as did the couple’s good friend, Daniel Vlad, 34.

Eduard Burceag was just one of the heroes.

When the call came at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday to the Camp Muir base camp, saying three hikers were missing in a blizzard, the National Park Service ranger in charge of rescue operations had little hope they would survive the night.

Kevin Hammonds, 28, described the storm as the worst he had ever seen during his years of hiking and mountain climbing: wind blowing hard enough to knock you off your feet, zero visibility making it impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

“The fact that any of them made it is noteworthy,” Hammonds said Thursday.

His lack of optimism didn’t stop Hammonds and a fellow ranger, Joe Franklin, from readying a search party to go at first light.

At about 5:30 a.m., Franklin was checking the horizon for any clues to the location of the missing hikers, all natives of Romania, but living in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle.

He saw what looked like a boulder in an unusual spot on the snowfield, then took a closer look with binoculars and realized the shape was moving.

Hammonds grabbed two mountain guides who had stayed the night at Camp Muir, at the 10,000 foot level of the 14,410-foot mountain, and headed out toward Vlad. Walking through knee-deep, blowing snow, it took about 10 minutes to meet him halfway.

Bacher called Vlad a hero as well, for his determination to do whatever it took to get help.

“It wasn’t that he had the physical stamina to do it, but he had the mental will,” Bacher said.

One of the guides helped Vlad back to Camp Muir after he directed Hammonds and Eben Reckord of International Mountain Guides toward Mariana and Eduard Burceag.

“We were able to, more or less, find them right away because he had given us such a good description,” Hammonds said. “They would have actually been hard for us to find without his guidance. Where they were definitely was not in eyeshot of camp.”

Mariana Burceag was conscious but not coherent, said Hammonds, whose training as an emergency medical technician is a requirement of the job.

When they turned to check her husband, they found Eduard Burceag unconscious; they couldn’t find a pulse.

“The two of us had to make a decision that she needed our immediate attention,” Hammonds said. “It was obvious to us, that … if left there much longer, she would probably be in the same shape he was.”

Hammonds’ emergency training told him they had to focus on the person most likely to survive.

They put a second down jacket on Mariana Burceag, put her in a sleeping bag and onto a sleeping pad, covered her with a small tent and started to drag the whole package toward Camp Muir.

They only got about 100 feet closer to Camp Muir before Hammonds and Reckord realized they needed more help. Four more guides answered their call with oxygen, another sleeping bag and a real sled. It took another hour for six people to get Mariana Burceag to shelter.

Then the rescuers turned around in the still cold and snowy conditions and went back for Eduard Burceag. Perhaps another hour passed before he made it to shelter; attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Hammonds said the three were experienced hikers ” both Eduard Burceag and Vlad had summited Rainier in the past ” and were dressed properly for a spring hike in warm winter jackets, wool hats and gloves and good boots.

Thick clouds prevented a helicopter evacuation later Tuesday. An Army chopper airlifted Mariana Burceag and Vlad from the peak Wednesday morning. They were treated for frostbite at a Seattle hospital and released. Eduard Burceag’s body was brought down the mountain on a sled Wednesday afternoon.

The Pierce County medical examiner’s office confirmed Thursday night that he died of hypothermia.

Reached by telephone in Romania, Eduard Burceag’s brother Cristian told The Seattle Times that his older brother moved to America eight years ago and fell in love with Seattle, its mountains, its opportunities.

“I can’t find words about him,” the younger Burceag said. “When he left for America he took his life in his hands and made a great career.”

Eduard Burceag worked for Active Voice, a Seattle-based company that specializes in helping companies transition from voice mail to computer communications and messaging.

Cristian Burceag said his mother was visiting his brother and was watching their two young boys while Eduard and Mariana hiked to Camp Muir.

He said he was not surprised his brother died shielding his wife from the blizzard.

“He was a hero for us,” he said. “I’m sure he would do that. He knew very well that his children needed a lot of their mother and that was the main thing in his life.”