Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: WWAN
Summary: Construction worker caught, buried and killed
Bridge destroyed, large excavator severally damaged. River dammed for 1/3 of mile, rose 22 feet before breaching. 3 additional slides came down during rescue. Local fire department nearly caught by large slide that piled debris 15-20 feet on top previous slide where they were probing for victim.
Deadly slide prompts safety probe
By KAREN AHO AND NATALIE PHILLIPS,Anchorage Daily News reporters
State officials were in Cordova on Friday to investigate
whether proper safety precautions were taken at a
hydroelectric construction site where an avalanche
killed a worker.
Gary Stone, 46, was running a backhoe Thursday in a
steep canyon seven miles northeast of town when a load
of snow slid down the 2,000-foot slope. The snow
buried the heavy equipment and knocked Stone out of
the cab. It also destroyed a temporary log bridge used to
ferry gravel and supplies.
Stone's body has not been found. Co-workers and
rescuers were called off the scene Thursday afternoon
when three successive slides sent them running for
Authorities suspended operations at the plant Friday and
Alaska State Troopers sealed the area, fire marshal Bob
Troopers, Cordova police and the state Occupational
Safety and Health Administration began interviewing
workers Friday about prior conditions at the site.
"We're going to look into this. We're going to find out
what people knew about this prior to" Thursday's
avalanche, said trooper 1st Sgt. Paul Burke, who called
it the most dangerous avalanche zone he has ever seen.
Mike Russell, assistant chief of enforcement for OSHA,
said the agency is looking into an avalanche report
prepared in March for the company in charge of the
project. Whitewater Engineering, a Bellingham, Wash.,
firm with experience in Southeast Alaska, had hired
Anchorage-based avalanche forecaster Dave Hamre to
do the study.
In a March 8 letter to Whitewater preceding the final
report, Hamre warned that the site had a high risk for
avalanches and suggested reducing worker hours and
hiring an avalanche prevention specialist. Hamre noted
that Whitewater wanted to run two shifts.
Workers have said about a dozen employees were at the
site in recent weeks.
Company executives, who arrived in Cordova on
Friday, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Hamre would not discuss the letter, a copy of which
was obtained by the Daily News.
The letter details that snow would most likely slide for
2,000 feet and collect in a deep pile in the narrow
canyon at Ohman Falls, where construction was under
Steep terrain in the area, fresh avalanche deposits
downstream and sheered trees in the region all point to
high avalanche danger, Hamre wrote.
An avalanche there would lead to "unsurvivable burial
for anyone caught," he wrote, concluding that "without
any mitigation, your exposure is very high."
Thomas Stahr, interim manager for Cordova Electric
Cooperative, which hired Whitewater to build the
hydroelectric project, said Hamre's report initiated
some worker training, though he didn't know specifics.
"They did have avalanche watches most of the time,"
Stahr said. "From time to time, they cleared everyone
out of the site. Why it didn't happen this particular day, I
Greg Lawson, another backhoe operator on the project,
said an avalanche expert had visited the site and told
workers what to watch out for.
"He explained high-risk avalanche days - when heavy
wet snow, rain comes down, stay out of there," Lawson
said Friday. "And (Thursday) was a high-risk day.
"We shouldn't have been there."
More snow than normal fell in the mountains around
Cordova this winter. It rained Wednesday night and into
Thursday. The two make for a stratified snowpack with
a heavier top layer that's prone to slough off.
Kevin Quinn, co-owner of Points North Helicopter
Service in Cordova, said he once offered to do
avalanche evaluation for Whitewater but the company
never took him up on it. Shortly after Hamre's report,
Whitewater asked if he would fly workers to the ridge
above so they could lob explosives at the cornice.
"I said until you have your permits, I am not going to do
that," Quinn recalled. "I never heard from them again."
On April 1, Whitewater applied to the U.S. Forest
Service office in Cordova for a permit to use aerial
explosives to control avalanches, district ranger Cal
Baker said. They received the permit April 8.
It was not clear Friday whether the company ever used
Stahr said he was not aware that the contractor had
gotten a permit to use explosives to try to reduce
"I believe the contractor did do some things," Stahr
said. "In hindsight, it doesn't look like he did enough."