Snow and Avalanche Center Avalanche News - 2006

Families billed for failed attempt to rescue skiers
By Paul Kelbie
Published: 17 August 2006

The families of two British snowboarders killed in an avalanche in the French Alps have expressed their anger at being chased by debt collectors over a £20,000 bill for the failed rescue attempt.

Sam Harber, 25, and James Rourke, 26, died while snowboarding off-piste in April last year. Despite the efforts of a French mountain rescue team, involving a helicopter and dog teams, neither man was saved after they were swept away by a 500-metre wide torrent of ice, snow and rock on Grande Motte, in the resort of Tignes.

Anger over rescue bid insurance bill
16 August 2006 | 08:55

THE family of a snowboarder whose body was found two months after he was killed in an avalanche in the French Alps have told of their anger after receiving a £9,000 insurance bill for the failed rescue attempts.

Sam Harber and his friend James Rourke died when they became trapped in a torrent of ice, snow and rock while snowboarding off-piste in April last year.

While Mr Rourke's body was found a few days after the accident, Mr Harber's family suffered an unbearable wait as poor weather hampered rescue efforts.

He was eventually found two months after the accident - on what would have been his 26th birthday - and his devastated family have now been told insurers are refusing to pay for the unsuccessful rescue attempts for the two men. The families of Mr Harber and Mr Rourke have been asked to pay £9,000 each.

Mr Harber's father, Barry, from Lawshall, near Bury St Edmunds, has pledged to continue fighting the dispute, which has seen his case go to a financial ombudsman.

“It is so difficult to move on when you still have this situation hanging over you,” he said.

“We now have to fight to not pay this money and we are so angry it has come to this. The rescue teams did such a good job and deserve to get paid but there is this massive grey area when it comes to this kind of insurance. We have been through enough without having to pay this money out as well.”

Both extreme sports enthusiasts and experienced snowboarders, Mr Harber and Mr Rourke died when they were hit by a 500metre-wide avalanche in April of last year.

Eyewitnesses to the tragedy later told an inquest into Mr Harber's death that he died purely through “bad luck”.

Although off-piste skiing was included in his son's insurance, Barry Harber said insurers had refused to pay for the rescue attempts because it was claimed the two men ignored danger signs.

The families have also failed in two attempts to take their case to the Financial Ombudsman Service, which said the pair “courted” any risk.

But Mr Harber said: “The pair knew they were off-piste, but they were great snowboarders and came well equipped. In fact, Sam was a real stickler and made sure everyone who went up there was aware of the dangers.”

Mr Harber and his former wife, Kristina Castro Pinto, Sam's mother, now hope people will learn from their case - and they have also called for a change in insurance policies surrounding skiers and snowboarders to ensure there are no grey areas about what is covered.

In a letter to both families, a spokesman for CNA Insurance Company described the mountainous area which claimed the men's lives as “highly dangerous”.

“Any individual who ventures it must do so at their own peril,” the spokesman added.

“We agreed to cover the cost of repatriation as a gesture of goodwill. Once the police report was received, we confirmed to our appointed loss adjustors that sadly the claim was not covered.”

A spokesman for CNA last night declined to comment further on the case.

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