Perfect day for skiing takes a tragic twist Death came at moment of impact

  Jonathan t. Lovitt


  USA Today


  Page 07A

  (Copyright 1998)


  SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Nev. -- Sonny Bono died here on a perfect day for



  The sky was blue. The snow was fresh. The slopes weren't crowded. And the

  trail was not dangerous, especially for a veteran skier like Bono who'd been

  coming to the Heavenly Ski Resort on the California-Nevada border since the



  Bono, 62, was skiing alone Monday when he struck a tree next to an

  intermediate trail.


  The ideal conditions make Bono's death appear to be a peculiar, tragic fluke.


  "Monday was every skier's dream, the best day of the year," said Tom Legan, 46,

  a dentist from Capitola, Calif., who was skiing here.


  Nobody witnessed the accident, said Douglas County (Nev.) Sheriff Ron Pierini.


  But here is what's known from police accounts and interviews with skiers and

  members of the ski patrol who discovered Bono's body:


  Bono was skiing with his wife, Mary, and their children -- daughter Chianna, 6,

  and son Chesare, 9 -- on the intermediate Orion trail at the 4,800-acre resort.


  At the top of the slope, one of his children fell. Bono's wife took the children

  down another trail to a lodge on the California side of the border.


  Bono continued on the Orion trail and told his wife he'd meet them later.


  The time was about 1:30 p.m., according to Pierini.


  Bono's wife became worried about 4:30 p.m. when the congressman hadn't

  appeared, the sheriff said.


  The ski resort, following established procedures, checked the resorts' three lodges

  for Bono. When he couldn't be found, 15 members of the ski patrol were sent out

  at 6 p.m.


  Bono's body was found 45 minutes later.


  While skiing at 20 to 30 miles per hour, Bono struck a lodgepole pine tree 15

  feet off the Orion trail. He suffered head and neck injuries and died instantly,

  probably about 2 p.m., according to the coroner.


  Bono wasn't thought to be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, although

  toxicology tests are pending, the sheriff said.


  Pierini said Bono left the trail 150 feet before he died. He probably was picking

  his own path in virgin snow on the right side of the trail, a popular practice

  among good skiers.


  The pine tree, one foot wide and 40 feet high, was separated from other trees by

  a few feet. It was easily visible and in terrain not particularly steep.


  But 18 inches in front of the tree was a craggy, three-foot long oblong rock. The

  rock pokes out six inches above the snow, causing skiers here to speculate that

  Bono's ski tip caught the rock, sending him head-first into the tree. Some rocks

  were marked by flags, but not this one.


  Other skiers found it odd that Bono's body wasn't found until nearly 7 p.m.

  though the accident occurred in an area easily visible from the trail.


  "I don't think anyone would be lying in that spot for all that time. Someone

  would have had to see them," said Christine Slagle, 19, a college student who

  was skiing the same slopes.


  Skiing off trail can be dangerous but isn't outlawed.


  Bono "was not reckless," said Jim Chalat, editor of Ski Safety News and a

  lawyer who represents injured skiers. "I've skied those same trees. An advanced

  skier in deep snow has every right to be there."


  After Bono's death, the resort posted signs forbidding tree skiing.


  Chalat says the resort probably is not liable. "In powder, there's a hundred ways

  to lose control," Chalat said. "It's an inherent risk of skiing."

  GRAPHIC,b/w,Bob Laird, Dave Merrill and Sam Ward, USA TODAY

  ,Sources:Reporting by Tammi Wark, Laura Bly, Deirdre Schwiesow, USA

  TODAY ; Heavenly Ski Resort,wire reports,Access -- Ski