On the eleventh of February, seven third-year seminarians from the SSPX seminary in Ecône, Switzerland went out into the mountains for a picnic and hike. Four of them were caught in a sudden avalanche. Only one of them survived. This letter was written by one of those who escaped the avalanche altogether... Let us pray for the repose of these young men's souls! Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis...
Ecône, 12 February 2009, 10am.
Dear family and friends,
Some of you might already have heard about this, but if only to correct partial accounts, I want to tell you about a difficult trial that hit the seminary of Econe yesterday. Three third year seminarians died in the mountains because of an avalanche (for those who know them, Jean-Baptiste Després (22), Raymond Guérin (22) et Michaël Sabak (20 ans)).
After the end-of-semester exams, we had a break of four days when we could make whatever outings we wanted. This Wednesday 11 February, seven of us seminarians (all 3rd years and French) decided to go out for a day in the mountains. We planned to treck on snow shoes towards a mountain refuge, cook our picnic and return in the evening so as to be back at the seminary for 6.30pm. We left the seminary by car about 9am, and parked up about 10.30am. From there we went off onto the fresh snow in snowshoes, along a path that leads to a hydroelectric dam way up in the mountains.
When we reached the summit about 12.45pm, a sign indicated that from that point it would ordinarily take one hour twenty minutes to reach the mountain refuge. But the path was covered with a metre and a half of snow on which nobody had walked, so much so that we had to cut the path again with our snow shoes. This path passed 50 metres above the lake (Cleuson). Two of us, being tired and hungry, didn't want to go on. So we were walking behind the others at a distance of 50 metres. Then, as the path went around an outcrop of rock above the lake, they disappeared from view.
One of them, however, wanted to see what had become of us, and came again into view around the outcrop. We exchanged a few words and then caught up with him. But then, looking for the group up ahead, we could see only their footprints, which petered out about 40 metres ahead of us, and the trail of an avalanche. The ice on the lake was broken where the avalanche had come to a halt, but we could make nothing else out because of the brightness of the snow and the visibility (100 metres).
We understood straightaway what had just happened. Seeing that in any case we could not help them, we went back to the dam. It was 1pm. After a few minutes of difficult walking, we reached the 'dam keepers' lodge'. The door was open, the lodge was empty, and near to the door was a phone. I then called 112 and the mountain rescue centre answered straightaway. Four people were in the avalanche and perhaps in the lake itself. In record time (15 mins), 2 'allouettes III' (helicopters) arrived at the spot and after half an hour, they brought back one of my best friends Eric Peron. He had not lost consciousness, and, though completely submerged in the snow, had managed to keep a pocket of air in front of his mouth with his arms, which saved him. Soon, he realised that the snow was whiter above him. Guessing that he was near the surface (his feet were in the lake and he was stuck from the waist up), he opened up a gap with his free arm, and actually reached the surface of the snow and he had the presence of mind to pull off his scarf and shove it through the opening. The rescuers saw it and with their dogs they got him out. He pointed out to them his fellow seminarian Raymond whose feet he could see, but Raymond was already dead. Eric was able to walk and seemed okay but Raymond was on the ground and we were not told until later that he was dead.
About 3pm they took us by helicopter (my first time in one ...) to the rescuers' base at Sion where the police took charge of us. Eric was already at hospital and he was well and had no broken bones. They held us a long time at the police station to make their inquiries into what had happened. As the eldest of the witnesses they made me make a long statement which the two others confirmed. Meanwhile we learnt that Raymond had died and that Jean-Baptiste and Michaël had not been found. There was no hope of getting them out alive. That evening at 7pm, they took us to the funeral home where we found Eric who was with Raymond's body. At 8.30pm, we were all taken back to the seminary. The searches stopped for the night and began again this morning.
That is the story of what happened. Everyone here is in shock. Three young, beautiful souls have gone to meet the Eternal Father. Four miracles - for if we had not lagged behind, we would have all been caught in the avalanche and, with nobody to raise the alarm, the searches would not have started until 7pm, which would have been too late for the seven of us, the ways of God are impenetrable - give thanks to the Lord for the life which he has given them, and mourn the death of their friends. I ask you now to pray for the dead, and for their families who are enduring a terrible trial, and to join us in thanking the mercy of heaven for sparing our lives.
With my love,
Requiescant in Pace