August 18, 1997 12:00 PM

THE AVALANCHE, IN THE Australian ski-resort town of Thredbo, struck just before midnight on July 30 and in seconds splintered two chalets and buried 19 people. The rescuers dug tirelessly for more than two days, but their hopes of finding any survivors were beginning to fade. Then they heard a voice under the rubble. Twelve hours later rescue workers freed ski instructor Stuart Diver, 27, who had been trapped in a cramped, icy air pocket for 65 hours. Exhausted and suffering from frostbite on his toes, but otherwise remarkably healthy, Diver was pulled out wearing only boxer shorts and a top. Gazing up into the twilight of the Snowy Mountains, he exclaimed, “That sky is fantastic!”

His exuberance was tempered by the terrible toll of the accident that rocked the popular ski area in the midst of Australia’s winter holiday season. Tragically, among the 18 people believed killed in the landslide was Diver’s wife of two years, Sally, 27. By the middle of last week, there were still conflicting accounts of exactly what had happened to her. She and Diver had just settled in for the night in one of the lodges. Seconds later tons of dirt, debris and concrete—possibly loosened by seeping ground water—gave way, shattering the two buildings with a torrent of mud and water. “[Sally] was slipping out of his grip. He hung on desperately…. But then there was another sudden rush of mud and water, and she was swept out of his arms,” according to Bruce Tarrant, a spokesman for a rescue team. “He knows he lost his wife in that hellhole.” Within minutes of the slide, scores of searchers, including Stuart’s brother Euan, 29, a firefighter at the resort, were on the spot. “It was a total scene of devastation,” says Euan. “The adrenaline just kept me going.”

That and the knowledge that his brother and sister-in-law were likely trapped. The Diver boys had virtually grown up in Thredbo, where their family went frequently to ski and hike. Stuart and Sally, who met when they were 16, had been childhood sweethearts. The couple married in 1995 and lived in Thredbo, where Sally worked as a receptionist at a hotel and Stuart taught skiing. They were planning a trip to a ski resort in Europe or the U.S. and reportedly hoped one day to open a lodge of their own.

Stuart told rescuers that within moments of the chalet’s collapse he found himself on his back in a space roughly eight feet long and four feet wide. He had only a few inches between his face and a concrete slab, which was touching his chest. “It all happened so rapidly,” paramedic Paul Featherstone, who spoke with Diver, told a television interviewer. “He actually thought it sounded like an explosion and within seconds he was confined in a concrete tomb. After the initial impact he was on his own. He was in total isolation and darkness.”

Things got worse. Fear and cold kept Diver from sleeping. Torrents of freezing water gushed through the cavity three times, each wave dumping more mud and reducing his breathing space, finally leaving him with water up to his lips and nose. The last 12 hours were among the most anxious, with Diver wondering if the rescuers who had located him could successfully dig him out before another flood took away the last of his breathable air. Finally diggers managed to lower a cellular phone so Diver could talk to his family, which helped lift his spirits. “He was never going to give up,” said Rob Killham, a firefighter who worked to free him.

Diver’s remarkable survival was largely due to luck, but he was also helped by his superb conditioning. One friend who worked construction with Diver during the off-season recalled how even after a long day of laboring, his chum would go running for several miles in the mountains. By last week his family was hopeful that Diver’s frostbitten toes could still be saved. As he lay in a hospital bed grieving, he drew some strength from the supportive flood of flowers, cards and get-well wishes from his countrymen. One note, from a 7-year-old in the city of Perth, summed up their sentiments. It showed a stick figure pushing back rocks with his hands. The message said simply: “Good on you, mate.”

BILL HEWITT

TRACEY AUBIN in Canberra

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