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PROVO, Utah (AP) -- Emergency crews encountered much deeper snow than anticipated in the search for three snowboarders feared dead in an avalanche in the backcountry of northern Utah.
"This is a massive slide," Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said of the snow more than 16 feet deep covering the 10-acre search area in Provo Canyon.
Rod Newberry, 20, Adam Merz, 18, and Mike Hebert, 19, had been snowboarding with two friends when the avalanche swept down the canyon Friday. Their friends survived, but Newberry, Merz and Hebert were gone.
Family and friends of the missing men consoled each other, crying at times, at a lodge serving as a command center.
"They realize they are dealing with a recovery," said Craig Knight, a family friend of Hebert and Merz who was serving as a spokesman for the families.
One of the survivors, Matt Long, was led back up the mountainside late Saturday afternoon to assist in the search, which ended for the day after sundown Saturday.
"So far, they have not found any exterior clues ... things like gloves, jackets, snowboards, those kinds of things," said John Valentine, a Utah state senator who is a volunteer dog handler helping search.
Weary rescue workers and dogs, some with their hind legs rubbed raw by ice, were expected to get fresh help Sunday with volunteers from six counties. If not found Sunday, Tracy said the recovery operation would be reassessed.
A helicopter crew dropped explosives in the canyon on Saturday morning to break up potential snow slides so search teams could safely get into the area. Tracy said they would consult with National Weather Service officials and an avalanche adviser before deciding whether that would be necessary before Sunday's search starts.
Dogs on Saturday sniffed out areas with the possible scent of the men, then poles surrounded by orange circles painted on the snow marked the spot as people began to dig through the snowpack, which had a consistency compared to wet cement.
"They are putting these 10-to-12 foot poles down, and they are not hitting bottom," Tracy said.
Rescuers on four occasions dug out pits 6 feet deep in the snow just to be in a position to plunge their poles into the snowpack, but still didn't touch the ground.
Two probe teams, one with 15 members and the other with 11, were rotated to provide the workers rest.
A snowshoer reported the avalanche Friday afternoon in the Aspen Grove area of Provo Canyon, about a mile north of Sundance ski resort, Harris said. The area is considered backcountry and has no avalanche control.
Dell Brown, who was snowshoeing with his family, said he and his wife fell to the ground and covered their two small children after the first slide. He said he saw one survivor and heard voices and called 911 before the second slide hit.
"We're just very grateful for our safety," said Brown, whose voice quivered with emotion as he recounted the events. "We were certain our lives were over."
Knight said the men grew up together in Utah County and had gone to the canyon Friday morning for a day of snowboarding.
"They liked to play, and they played hard," said Knight.
Long, 18, was buried to his chest in snow but dug himself out. Another, J.D. Settle, 20, was completely buried but was rescued by a bystander and escaped with only a knee injury.
Two other groups of skiers or snowboarders also were caught in the avalanche, but both managed to get out.
The avalanche hit near the end of a storm that dumped 29 inches of snow in the Sundance area in 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service.
It appeared the main avalanche broke away at the top of the chute and that none of the skiers or snowboarders appeared to have triggered it, Tracy said.
None of the snowboarders carried standard avalanche safety equipment such as radio transmitters, shovels or probe poles, Tracy said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)