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New Jersey man suffocates to death at Vail after getting caught in chairlift

Jason Varnish's death has been ruled an accident but authorities are still investigating how it happened

Skiers make tracks at Vail Mountain on December 18, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

VAIL — A skier appears to have suffocated to death at a Colorado resort after he fell through an opening in a chairlift seat and became caught with his coat wrapped around his head and neck, officials said.

Jason Varnish of Short Hills, New Jersey, died of positional asphyxia Thursday at Vail Mountain’s Blue Sky Basin area, according to Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.

The death has been ruled an accident but authorities are still investigating how it happened, the Vail Daily reported.

Bettis said an initial investigation found the chairlift’s folding seat was upright instead of in the down position, leaving a gap. Varnish’s coat became caught in the chair when he slipped through the gap.

“The coat ended up going around his head and neck area putting his neck in a position that compromised his airway,” Bettis told the newspaper.

Blue Sky Basin was closed about 24 hours after the accident, and reopened around midday Friday. Other skiers and snowboarders at the resort witnessed the grisly situation.

Read more skiing stories from The Colorado Sun

“We take all incidents seriously and are conducting a full investigation,” Vail Resorts said in a statement. “The lift has been thoroughly inspected and is operating normally.”

First responders at Vail provided CPR to Varnish at the scene. He was then taken to Vail health Hospital.

“Vail Mountain and the entire Vail Resorts family express our sincere condolences and extend our support to the guest’s family and friends,” said Beth Howard, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain.

Fatal chairlift incidents are extremely rare.

The last one in Colorado happened in December 2016 at Granby Ranch when a 40-year-old Texas woman, Kelly Huber, was thrown from a lift she was riding with her two daughters. State investigators determined the fatal incident was caused because of inputs from the operator and recent changes made to the chairlift.

The Colorado Sun contributed to this report.