PALMER — The family of a Czech billionaire killed in a 2021 heli-skiing crash is suing the Alaska helicopter company, lodge and guiding service involved, alleging his death was caused by negligent monitoring and response that delayed rescue.
The sole survivor of the crash is also suing the lodge over the injuries he suffered waiting on rescue and the emotional pain of listening to two others die.
The March 2021 crash of the Airbus AS350B3 operated by Wasilla’s Soloy Helicopters in the Chugach Mountains 21 miles southeast of Palmer was one of the deadliest heli-skiing aviation accidents in North American history and garnered international attention.
The crash killed 56-year-old Petr Kellner, one of the richest men in Europe, and 50-year-old French snowboarder Benjamin Larochaix; well-known guides Gregory Harms, 52, of Colorado, and Sean McManamy, 38, of Girdwood; and 33-year-old Soloy pilot Zachary Russell of Anchorage.
One man survived: Czech snowboarder David Horvath, 48 at the time. But two others — Kellner and Harms — lived through the impact and died before rescuers arrived, according to Horvath’s account as told to his attorney.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. A final report is expected by midsummer, the agency’s Alaska chief said this week.
The men were clients of Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a remote, high-end destination across Cook Inlet from Anchorage that Kellner favored. Lodge owner Triumvirate LLC includes Olympic gold medal skier Tommy Moe, Alaska heli-ski pioneer Mike Overcast, and Mike Rheam.
Kellner was alive for two hours or more, according to Tracey Knutson, Horvath’s Homer-based attorney. Harms most likely died within an hour or so, Knutson said this week.
Horvath told her that Kellner was outside of the helicopter, walking around looking for a satellite phone, Knutson said. “They were speaking to each other in Czech, saying to each other, ‘Don’t worry, we will not die on this mountain today. They have to come and get us within an hour.’”
Authorities have said they didn’t even know the helicopter had crashed for about two hours. It would take more than five hours for rescue to arrive.
Kellner was seriously injured but alive and conscious after the helicopter crashed, according to the wrongful death lawsuit filed March 24 in Anchorage Superior Court on behalf of his widow and four children. The lawsuit names Soloy, lodge owner Triumvirate LLC, and Third Edge Heli.
“By the time they located Mr. Kellner’s body, he had succumbed to what were survivable injuries,” the complaint states. It does not provide details on the nature of Kellner’s injuries or what caused his death.
The three companies named in the suit should have known about the crash immediately and notified authorities, triggering “life-saving medical care,” the Kellner complaint states.
But instead, it alleges, they failed to track the helicopter or maintain constant contact with the pilot and guide, then failed to either notify authorities or enact a rescue. The lawsuit also alleges Soloy failed to make sure the beacon worked properly.
The Anchorage legal firm representing the Kellner family, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, did not return calls for comment.
A Soloy representative declined to comment when reached by phone.
Triumvirate, in a statement forwarded by spokesperson Mary Ann Pruitt, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
“Triumvirate LLC and its employees again express condolences to the families who lost loved ones and to the survivor who was injured in the helicopter crash,” the statement said. “To be clear, Triumvirate LLC was not responsible for the crash and there is no merit to the claims against Triumvirate LLC.”
The men originally planned to stay at a Tordrillo Mountain Lodge property near Skwentna but a COVID-19 case prompted them to stay at a home on Wasilla Lake instead. The day of the crash, they took a roughly 20-minute flight into the Chugach.
The group made several late afternoon runs in the backcountry above Knik Glacier before the helicopter slammed into an unnamed 6,000-foot peak, 10 or 15 feet from the top, as Russell maneuvered over a ridge looking for a place to set down, federal investigators found.
Just after 6:30 p.m., a tracking signal abruptly stopped in steep terrain but for reasons still under investigation, no emergency response was launched. An emergency locator beacon that emits a distress signal didn’t trigger on impact. The helicopter crashed at about 5,500 feet and then rolled 800 or 900 feet downhill, investigators have said.
It was nearly two hours before the first official indications that the group was overdue. The wreckage wasn’t spotted for three hours, triggering the rescue mission.
Just before midnight, Alaska National Guard pararescuers arriving at the wreckage found five people — Horvath was the only one still alive — inside the helicopter, according to an incident report. A sixth was found dead outside, about 30 feet away.
That person was Kellner, numerous sources interviewed for this story said.
Horvath, trapped by snow in his seat after suffering broken ribs and dislocated knees, wasn’t extricated for nearly six hours, his attorney has said. He lost all the fingers on his left hand and some on his right to frostbite. His body temperature was 82 degrees.
Horvath required months of therapy and surgeries upon returning home, said Knutson, who spent days with him in the Czech Republic last fall. He still hasn’t recovered from the emotional trauma, Knutson said.
“You carry that grief and guilt of being the only survivor,” she said. “That, I would say, is the most pronounced thing: for a person to walk their life, wondering why.”
Who was watching?
Horvath’s lawsuit, filed in late March in Anchorage Superior Court, alleges that the only responsibility for the lack of tracking and emergency response after the crash fell on the lodge and its owners. It claims the contracts in place that day transferred some of the safety responsibilities from Soloy to Triumvirate, a contention the lodge disputes.
“The tragedy of the initial crash was exponentially worsened when the lessor of the aircraft and the sole entity entrusted with operational control ... ignored plain enunciated industry standards and completely failed to initiate any emergency response to a visibly still and out of communication aircraft,” Knutson wrote in an email. “This ‘second’ failure caused the death of 2 other individuals and very nearly caused Mr. Horvath’s death.”
Along with Triumvirate and Rheam, that lawsuit also names Spurr Mountain LLC, which owns the property where the lodge is located, according to Matanuska-Susitna Borough records.
The lawsuit contends it was the lodge that was supposed to monitor the flight, communicate with the group and initiate a rescue plan once the group was out of contact for more than 60 minutes, as dictated by heli-ski industry standards.
The last communication the lodge had with the helicopter was at 5:30 p.m., according to the Horvath complaint.
Someone at the lodge called Third Edge Heli, Harms’ company, after 8 p.m. to “ask them if they ‘knew’ anything,” the complaint states. Third Edge Heli then notified Soloy and authorities about the missing helicopter and then leased a pilot who flew to the area and spotted wreckage just after 9:30 p.m., when the rescue mission was initiated.
But the lodge cites Federal Aviation Administration regulations putting the responsibility for operational control strictly on a helicopter company under contract to carry passengers, Pruitt said. In this case, that company was Soloy.
Triumvirate on the day of the crash had also entered into a cooperative agreement with Third Edge Heli to assist with communications, flight following and any emergency response necessary, Pruitt said. It was Third Edge that was supposed to remain in direct communications with the team on the mountain at all times, she said.
A Third Edge employee declined to comment this week.
Both lawsuits seek damages to be determined at trial. Both were filed in late March to fall within the two-year window Alaska requires for civil lawsuits like these.