Perfect day for skiing takes a tragic twist Death came at moment of impact
Jonathan t. Lovitt
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
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