Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 1999-04-15
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Cordova
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: Construction worker caught, buried and killed

Followup:

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

safety.

Authorities suspended operations at the plant Friday and

Alaska State Troopers sealed the area, fire marshal Bob

Plumb said.

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

way.

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

don't know."

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

the permit.

Stahr said he was not aware that the contractor had

gotten a permit to use explosives to try to reduce

avalanche risk.

"I believe the contractor did do some things," Stahr

said. "In hindsight, it doesn't look like he did enough."