(CNN)It was a beautiful Monday morning in the Austrian Alps when six young US ski racers set off for a day of freeskiing.
The 13-minute “Off Piste: Tragedy in the Alps” movie, released by the Bryce and Ronnie Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS), opens with a dramatic re-enactment of the moment immediately after the huge avalanche engulfed two future ski stars on the US youth team on January 5, 2015.
Their four team mates frantically dug in the snow to find them, to no avail. When the two Americans were finally found, buried under 12 feet of snow, Austrian rescue workers tried to resuscitate them, but it was too late. Bryce Astle, 19, and Ronnie Berlack, 20, were pronounced dead at the scene.
“We stood there, and we watched them go,” one of their team mates, Eric Arvidsson, says in the movie. “Nothing made any sense.”
The short film, executive produced by Cindy and Steve Berlack, Ronnie’s parents, and Bryce’s parents, Jamie and Laura Astle, tries to answer two questions.
First, how could this happen to two US Olympic skiing hopefuls who had grown up in the mountains? And second, what can be done to prevent it from happening again?
“Right from the time of Ronnie and Bryce’s accident it’s been the goal of the families to use the tragedy as an opportunity to educate others,” says BRASS chairman Jamie Astle on the foundation’s website.
“For that reason, we wanted to be very candid and forthcoming with the film to reach viewing audiences with a very simple yet poignant message.”
Bryce Astle grew up in the mountains of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. He had been a top junior technical skier in North America and was the US junior giant slalom champion.
Ronnie Berlack was raised in Franconia, New Hampshire. Berlack, who joined the US development squad in 2013, also excelled in other sports, including soccer, tennis, cycling and sailing.
On New Year’s Day 2015, the pair traveled to Sölden, near Innsbruck, to train for a Europa Cup event, the tier below the World Cup.
When training was canceled because of heavy snowfall, the US coaches gave the development team part of the day off to do some free skiing.
With mostly clear blue skies, sunshine and lots of fresh snow, the young men started from the top of the 3,058-meter (10,000 feet) Gaislachkogl, one of three peaks above 3,000 meters in Sölden.
At 9:40 a.m., the group left the prepared piste to go down a steep ungroomed slope that connected to another marked and groomed trail about 1,200 feet below.
“I initially remember skiing across this face, and all of a sudden, I just heard cracking,” said US skier Drew Duffy, one of the four men who escaped the avalanche.
“I saw Bryce and heard him say ‘Oh s—.’ I never even saw Ronnie,” said Arvidsson.
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‘Change avalanche warning systems’
Since the deaths, the Astle and Berlack families have campaigned for changes in warning systems along with education to prevent avalanche accidents.
In October, Cindy Berlack addressed a conference of 1,000 avalanche experts in Innsbruck.
1. Get the gear
2. Get the training
3. Get the forecast
4. Get the picture
5. Get out of harm’s way
“I am not a snow scientist,” she said. “I am an emotionally driven mom. Your mom could be standing here, if it had been you.”
She pleaded for warning signs to be written in the local language and English, urged authorities to post clear danger signs when the snow is unstable off the groomed trails, called for adjustments to the international warning scale, and suggested boosting avalanche education.
“It was a Level 3 ‘considerable’ warning on that day,” Cindy Berlack said. “Being in the middle of the scale, it appeared to our boys’ coach that the danger was moderate. They allowed the athletes to go free riding, unaware the level was actually deadly. Adjust the danger levels 3-5 so visitors will take a Level 3 warning seriously. Also, the word ‘considerable,’ is not a strong clear message that the snow is very dangerous.”
Sölden will now have avalanche warning signs both in German and English, featuring the pictures of Bryce and Ronnie.
The tragedy rocked the US ski team to its core.
“Losing Bryce and Ronnie was a huge loss to the US team,” said Steve Nyman, a three-time World Cup winner. “They were the next generation. These two guys were the best in their disciplines — Bryce in slalom and Ronnie in downhill and super G.”
Tiger Shaw, chief executive officer and chairman of US Ski & Snowboard, said he was “shattered, and I think everyone around me was, too. I can’t possibly imagine what it was like for the families.”
The loss of two of the team’s brightest prospects “causes a ton of introspective thought,” Shaw said.
“We realized that we really needed to look at it from the top down, bottom up. How can we make sure everybody is more educated to avert and reduce the chance of anything like this ever happening again?”
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