By Tim Mutrie
Sarah Burke’s crash in the Park City Mountain Resort halfpipe nine days ago looked to one observer “like a crash a lot of us have taken before.” But this morning, Burke, 29, a beloved freeskiing champion and pioneer from Ontario and living in Squamish, B.C., died from injuries sustained in the crash at the Salt Lake City hospital where she was being treated in the aftermath of the accident, according to a statement from a family spokesperson.
Professional halfpipe skier Pete Olenick, a close friend of Burke’s and her husband, Rory Bushfield, was fighting back tears when reached by phone today in Killington, Vt. Olenick had been skiing with Burke at the time of her Jan. 10 accident in Park City, and he kept vigil for three days at the hospital with Burke’s family and friends.
“I’m super bummed and sad. I feel bad for Sarah’s family, for Rory’s family, for everyone,” Olenick told Powder.com.
News of Burke’s death reached Olenick and fellow pro halfpipe skiers in Killington this afternoon, after a qualifying round of the Dew Tour event there had been completed. Olenick is slated to compete tomorrow (Friday) in the semifinals, but he said that “doesn’t matter to me anymore.”
“Nobody here really knows what to do,” Olenick said. “We’re all just hanging out together.” He added, “None of us are talking about skiing tomorrow or anything like that.”
Of Burke and Bushfield’s relationship, he said, “Those two were the perfect match. Nothing will ever be like that. We all wish we could be with Rory right now.”
Following an ally-oop flatspin trick, Burke’s “whiplashing” crash looked pretty standard at first, Olenick said, “like a crash a lot of us have taken before.” He added, “She took a pretty hard slam. She was not doing anything out of her ability or too crazy or whatever. She landed a little low in the pipe, just a little over-rotated and caught an edge and slammed on her side. We thought maybe she broke her collarbone or dislocated her shoulder.”
“Then pretty instantly we realized it was more than that,” he continued.
Burke was immediately unconscious, he said. Today, the family’s statement said Burke suffered a ruptured vertebral artery, one of the four major arteries supplying blood to the brain, leading to a severe intracranial hemorrhage. This caused Burke to go into cardiac arrest on the scene.
Following emergency surgery at the hospital, later tests revealed “Sarah sustained severe irreversible damage to her brain due to lack of oxygen and blood after cardiac arrest, resulting in hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy,” according to the family statement. At 9:22 a.m. today, “Sarah passed away peacefully surrounded by those she loved. In accordance with Sarah’s wishes, her organs and tissues were donated to save the lives of others.”
The statement continued, “While early reports in the media stated that Sarah’s injury was a traumatic brain injury, it is important to note that Sarah’s condition was the result of a lack of oxygen to the brain during cardiac arrest.”
Olenick, whose brother and sister are also pro halfpipe skiers, said he was among five or six other skiers, including his brother, training with Burke at the time of her crash. He stayed with her until she was taken by helicopter to the hospital.
“It was terrible, it was scary, it was hard to see your friend like that,” he said. “There was some CPR right there in the pipe, and then more at the patrol hut, because the patrol hut was close to the bottom of the pipe.”
“Later, at the hospital, everyone was sad, and knew the seriousness of the accident, but everyone was trying to take any positive note they could from the doctors and try to hang onto that day by day pretty much everyday,” he said.
“Now,” he continued, “everyone’s just sad. We all know how much Sarah meant to the sport, how good a friend she was to everybody, and how much her life impacted everybody else.”
Peter Judge, chief executive of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, said in a statement, “Our hearts go out to Sarah’s husband Rory and her entire family. … Sarah was certainly someone who lived life to the fullest and in doing so was a significant example to our community and far beyond. She will be greatly missed by all of us at the CFSA and the entire ski community.”
A fundraising account has been established in Burke’s name, giveforward.com/sarahburke?t=2, to help pay for outstanding medical costs and related expenses.
The Powder family extends its heartfelt condolences to Bushfield, Burke and Bushfield’s families, and their friends.