Trouble at Tahoe

Lack of access sparks teen's family to sue after gondola ride

By Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton

Last Updated 12:52 am PST Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A23

Christine Burke, 18, who has spina bifida, plays tennis in San Jose in September


Christine Burke, 18, who has spina bifida, plays tennis in San Jose in September.
Sacramento Bee/Paul Kitagaki Jr.

Christine Burke was an athletic, outgoing 14-year-old when she headed up to South Lake Tahoe in July 2003 with her parents and little brother for a summer vacation.

Born with spina bifida, and reliant on a manual wheelchair, Christine routinely overcame obstacles. She learned to water- and snow-ski, and plays competitive tennis and basketball with other disabled athletes.

What lay before her on July 14, 2003, however, was so daunting and unexpected it would set her on a legal path toward justice no one in her family had ever envisioned.

On the first day of their trip, the family eagerly chose to ride the new multimillion-dollar gondola at Heavenly Ski Resort. As was their custom, her parents asked at the ticket booth if the ride was wheelchair-accessible.

Assured that it was, they paid $70 for four tickets and soared to the top with Christine and her wheelchair safely aboard, relishing the spectacular view of the lake and mountains.

And then, a devastating barrier appeared. At the top, where the gondola left passengers to dine and hike, there was no elevator or ramp -- just two sets of stairs down to the picnic area.

Christine made a decision. The teenager with lively green eyes hoisted herself out of her wheelchair and bumped down 44 metal stairs on her bottom, one step at a time.

People stared, embarrassing her. But she pressed on, one uncomfortable step at a time.

"It was degrading to have people stare at me," said the girl, now an 18-year-old high school senior with a splash of freckles across her face. "It sort of ruined the whole day."

The concession stand area posed its own challenges, as the paths were rutted and pocked with holes and the tables lacked any accessible seating for people in wheelchairs.

Christine returned to the gondola car the same way, sitting backward, awkwardly pulling herself up, step by step

The Burkes had never filed a disability access suit; Christine had always seemed to manage. But this experience was deeply troubling.

"She's not beyond pushing on some dirt roads -- she has done that," said Christine's mother, Dawn Graeme, a 50-year-old physical therapist. "This is not as though we go up to the mountains and expect Mother Nature to have paved things from top to bottom."

What they did expect, she said, was that a multimillion-dollar gondola built years after passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act would have a "ramp, an elevator and safe access."

The family eventually sued, hiring longtime Oakland access attorney Paul Rein.

The case was settled in 2005 and Christine received $80,000 in damages. Attorney's fees, including consultants, came to an additional $106,000.

More importantly, family members say, the resort agreed to install and maintain an elevator at the gondola's uppermost platform and make the concession grounds accessible.

Heavenly spokesman Russ Pecoraro said that the facilities were out of compliance when current owners, Vail Resorts, took over the ski area in spring 2002, the year after the gondola opened. Since then, Pecoraro said, the company has spent more than $900,000 upgrading facilities and improving access -- much of it on the gondola.

Christine's parents, who had agonized over whether to sue, hope to never do so again. Their attorney, said the mother, had to talk them into taking the settlement money, which they have set aside for Christine's college education.

But they do take pride in making a difference for the thousands of disabled tourists who come behind them.

"The world is not accessible, I know that," Christine said recently. "I do adapt to an inaccessible world."

And sometimes, the world can be nudged to adapt to her.

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Marjie Lundstrom can be reached at mlundstrom@sacbee.com or (916) 321-1055. The Bee's Sam Stanton can be reached at sstanton@sacbee.com or (916) 321-1091.
Christine Burke, 18, who has spina bifida, plays tennis in San Jose in September


In July 2003, at the top of the Heavenly Ski Resort gondola, Christine Burke, left, had to bump up and down the metal stairs. Her parents had been told that the facility was wheelchair-accessible.
Burke family photo

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