Collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena, Part II

The Blyth Memorial Arena collapsed on March 29, 1983. | Bill Briner

Blyth Memorial Arena, built for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was innovatively designed with an active system to make the roof shed snow unlike most buildings in snow country at that time that are beefed up structurally to passively carry anticipated snow loads. Over time, however, modifications to the building, particularly the addition of a fiberglass roofing material, inhibited this active snow-shedding process.

Read Part I of the story 

In 1982, Squaw Valley Ski Corporation (as it was known at that time) purchased the facility and hired Peter Bansen to manage it. Bansen was a Squaw employee, volunteer fireman and former assistant manager of the rink. Pete Onorato, a Squaw Valley local was hired as assistant manager. Both Pete and his brother, Dave, had worked at Blyth Arena since they were young and were highly knowledgeable about the infrastructure and its operation.

By the time snow started flying in the fall of 1982, Bansen had hired a crew of motivated employees, acquired a used Zamboni (a machine used to restore a rink’s ice surface first utilized in an Olympic venue at the 1960 Winter Games), stocked up on rental skates and repaired the refrigeration system and boilers. Their energetic, hard work enabled Squaw to open the popular venue in time for the busy Christmas holiday season.

The winter of 1983 ranks as one of the snowiest of record and by late December 1982 deep accumulations on the roof of Blyth threatened the structure. To reduce the load, Squaw Valley brought in snowcats to plow the roof; snow depths ranged from 4 to 8 feet. Within a week, the Piston Bully grooming machines had done the job; operators Steve Brehler and Casey Train left a base of 1 to 2 feet after scraping off the rest. This El Niño-influenced winter was far from done, however, and heavy wet snow continued to pile up in the Tahoe Sierra. Frequent storm days drove skiers off the mountain and onto the protected ice rink making for handsome profits.

The classic ski movie “Hot Dog” was being filmed at the time and the production company was using portions of the Blyth facility for storing props and equipment, as well as other production needs. To save money on electricity, Bansen and Onorato discovered that they could turn off the refrigeration plant at night and as long as they fired it up at 6 a.m. the ice slab maintained an excellent hardness quality.

Blyth Arena had been a busy place during the harsh winter of 1983 and March 29 was booked with a Tiny Tots skating session in the morning, public skating in the afternoon and broomball games in between. Bansen went to work at 6 a.m. that morning, fired up the compressors and picked up the receipts from the previous evening. After breakfast at Olympic House, he returned to the rink to get on with his day. Bansen still doesn’t know why, but as he walked on the rink’s ice surface, he looked up at the roof. What he saw stopped him in his tracks.

Two of the huge, steel box beams that supported the roof were bending at just about the middle of their span. Deeply concerned, Bansen walked up to the Cable Car building and asked Squaw Valley general manager Jimmy Mott to come down to the rink to check out the situation. After looking at the Blyth support beams, Mott told Bansen “I don’t know what I’m looking at – just do whatever you think is best.”

Bansen wasn’t sure if a roof failure was imminent or even likely, but he decided to err on the side of caution. He closed the arena for the day. He changed the answering machine message, called all employees and told them not to come in, and when the “Hot Dog” production crew arrived he killed the electricity and told them there was a power failure.

Originally, the outer doors in Blyth had been padlocked by the U.S. Forest Service who were the previous operators, but when Squaw Valley took over Bansen had replaced those old locks and loops of chain with a new set that were all keyed alike. Just to be sure that none of his staff came into the building while it was closed, Bansen changed the new locks back to the old Forest Service hardware.

When he finally left the building, he believed that the facility was empty. Once outside, he inspected the building and noticed that the lower cables that supported the two distorted beams were starting to fail. As each individual wire in the woven cable snapped, it generated a chilling, flat twang. Bizarrely, the roof didn’t appear to have too much snow on it, except for a drift in the middle that extended from the edge of the roof almost to the ridge. Removing that snow with a groomer seemed too risky given the cable failure in progress.

After meeting with Mott one more time at noon, Bansen was walking across the parking lot when a huge portion of the roof collapsed with a loud boom and billowing cloud of dust. Despite all of Bansen’s precautions, Squaw Valley employee John Moors had entered the building to work on a special project. A large chunk of snow trapped him inside the building for a few minutes, but luckily he escaped unscathed and there were no injuries or fatalities.

A forensic engineering report released in 1987 pointed out that the arena was structurally under-designed for snow loads at that location. In 1977, a group of consultants had agreed that the structure was in good shape, but recommended additional support to bring the building up to code. Nothing was done to increase the load capacity.