The avalanche which killed a Jersey resident whilst he was skiing in the French Alps was a “freak accident,” an inquest has heard.
Zbigniew Jan Hermaszewski was 61 years old when he died on a corporate skiing trip to the Alps; a “freak” avalanche pulled him down a wooded slope for several hundred metres – causing serious injuries that an inquest has now ruled were the cause of his death earlier this year.
It was heard that Mr Hermaszewski likely “collided with a number of trees” on his way down – causing serious injuries to his chest and arm.
Advocate Mark Harris presided over the inquest as Coroner and the Police Coroner’s Officer Tony Forder presented a case summary of the incident which resulted in his death on 1 March 2019. The inquest opened two weeks after the accident so that Mr Hermaszewski's body could be released for funeral arrangements.
Pictured: The inquest took place in Morier House.
Mr Forder told the inquest that Mr Hermaszewski was on the trip with six other men – a mixture of employees and clients of the French bank Société Generale – and on the day of the incident the group were ski-touring, a type of off-piste skiing across open country in an area that “was deemed to be safe.”
The group were accompanied with two “very well qualified” ski guides, Mr Forder continued, adding that all of the men were given the “requisite safety equipment” ahead of their tour in a wooded area of the Alps called Les Bois des Bergers and they made their way from a point called Les Boussardes, uphill.
It was when the skiers and snowboarders made it to the brow of the hill when “a large slab of snow ruptured 15 metres above the leader of the group,” dislodging and sliding down the hillside.
Mr Hermaszewski, the lead guide and another member of the group were “taken down with it,” but the 61-year-old was the only one injured by the avalanche.
After the snow fractured, the group realised Mr Hermaszewski “wasn’t anywhere to be seen” and they began searching for him.
Pictured: Mr Hermaszewski sadly met his death due to a "freak accident" in this region of the French Alps (Google Maps).
He was later found, obviously injured and without a pulse, further down the hill by the lead ski guide who, along with his assistant, administered CPR until the rescue crews arrived. Unfortunately, the Jersey resident was “unable to be saved.”
Making his own observations, Mr Forder surmised: “This was a tragic accident… which obviously could not have been foreseen or avoided.”
The inquest heard extracts from four witnesses – the two guides and two of Mr Hermaszewski’s companions – which were taken as part of an extensive investigation into the accident by French authorities.
Although it was initially labelled as a manslaughter investigation, the French authorities have categorically ruled that all safety procedures were followed, and no offences were committed resulting in Mr Hermaszewski’s death.
Pictured: Several witnesses gave evidence about what they saw of the avalanche.
The investigation consulted with an Avalanche Expert who conducted detailed analysis of the scene and, he too agreed that there was nothing in the forecast or the conditions that “would have alerted the guides” to a threat of an avalanche of this kind.
In his statement, one of the guides said he is “still perplexed by an avalanche of this magnitude [given] this temperature and this level of risk.”
Amidst the reading of the witness statements, Advocate Harris remarked: “It’s really looking like a freak accident in those conditions.”
The other statements echoed the unexpected nature of the avalanche, with the man who organised the trip saying “we didn’t see it coming” and the lead ski guide – who has lived in the Alps for 30 years – commenting “I have never known of an avalanche in this area.”
The post-mortem examination carried out by Consultant Histopathologist at the Hospital Dr Helen Goulding, after Mr Hermaszewski’s body was repatriated to Jersey a few days after his death, found that he had suffered “multiple injuries due to trauma.”
Closing the inquest, Advocate Harris remarked on “how very sad it is to hear about Mr Hermaszewski’s death,” ruling that he died as a result of traumatic injuries suffered as a result of being caught in the avalanche.
The Coroner then offered his condolences to Mr Hermaszewski’s friends and family.
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