Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-01-26
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Cordova
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 3 houses destroyed, 3 persons hit, 1 killed

UPDATE FROM Alaska Mountain Safety Center 01/30/00

3 houses and 2 warehouses completely destroyed, 2 houses damaged. 3 people hit -- 1 killed, 1 completely buried but recovered alive with some injuries, 1 unhurt.

Official Report to posted at a later date.


Thursday, January 27, 2000

Rescuers save Cordova man after


Slide strikes homes, killing woman, 63



Daily News reporters

CORDOVA - Five hours after an

avalanche roared down a Cordova

slope, destroying four houses and

killing a woman, dozens of rescuers

were still digging Wednesday

afternoon through the debris covering

the home of Jerry LeMaster.

It had been two hours since the body of LeMaster's companion, Martha

Quales, had been pulled out. LeMaster was still missing.

LeMaster was a member of the volunteer fire department, so rescuers

tried paging him to make his beeper sound. Every so often they'd order all

cell phones, radios and backhoe engines silenced so they could listen.

They were holding another paging test at 2:55 p.m. when they first heard


"He's yelling! He's here!" a rescuer called out from the bottom of a pit.

"He's five feet below where I'm standing," another said.

Shouts of joy erupted among the dozens of rescuers. They began digging

into the snow and pulling away scraps of the house with renewed energy.

"Slow it down!" avalanche specialist Jill Fredston cautioned. "Go in from

the side. Think about the air space as you pull out the beams."

Where the two-story home had stood was now a 15-foot layer of dense

snow, shattered house remnants, spruce tree branches and countless

personal items - shoes, a compact disc, a laundry basket, a candle holder.

After about a half-hour of digging in the pit, they could see LeMaster

through a small opening.

The 50-year-old flooring contractor had been in a back room. He lay

face up, his legs tangled in parts of the walls. The furnace was by his side,

supporting a blue interior door, which in turn held up a beam. The jumble

created the air space that kept him alive. The bottom of the door,

however, was pressing on LeMaster's chest and abdomen.

A paramedic looked into the hole.

"He's got movement. He can move his hands and legs," she said.

LeMaster was fully dressed, wearing a jacket with the hood pulled

around his head, as if he had been preparing to go outside.

The diggers carefully moved plywood and lumber and snow to enlarge the


Nearly an hour after they first heard him, rescuers carefully lifted a water

heater off the blue door, not knowing whether the debris pile would fall in

on LeMaster. It held. Now they were down to the blue door.

LeMaster was fading.

A paramedic who had crawled into the hole called for heat packs. She

asked that oxygen be made ready.

"Jerry, talk to me!" she said.

Rescuers called for a chain saw, and a man sawed off the lower corner of

the door. Paramedics had advised that LeMaster be removed gently from

the hole, but suddenly LeMaster stopped breathing, and rescuers did not

hesitate to pull him straight out.

His face was purplish-blue and his eyes were closed. Paramedics applied

oxygen and a man gave strong compression thrusts to his chest.

He had been buried for nearly six hours.

"Hang in there, Jerry!" rescuers yelled. "You can do it, Jerry!"

Moments later, he was in an ambulance headed for the hospital five miles

away. Paramedics had restarted his breathing.

The 9:50 a.m. avalanche destroyed four homes and a warehouse along

the Copper River Highway at Mile 5.5. It pushed several buildings 20 to

30 feet off their foundations.

The body of 63-year-old Quales was found about 12:30 p.m. amid the

debris of their living room.

"She was in her easy chair," said volunteer rescuer Michael O'Leary.

Quales, mother of three daughters and a son, moved to Cordova from

West Virginia in 1980 and had worked a number of jobs around town,

most recently at the Moose Lodge, said daughter Lee Quales of


"One minute everything was fine, the next minute there was an avalanche

and they were the only two not accounted for," said Lee Quales, who

was at the hospital when LeMaster was brought in.

LeMaster was airlifted to Providence Alaska Medical Center. He was

being treated there late Wednesday for hypothermia and a possible

broken arm, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Michael Patterson said.

Lee Quales' mother and LeMaster had been partners for more than 20

years, she said. They had been living in the house for 10.

A man escaped uninjured from a neighboring house that was flattened by

the slide, said Cordova Mayor Edward Zeine. No one was home at the

two other demolished houses, he said.

The avalanche also destroyed a construction company warehouse,

throwing it across a road. It damaged to about eight other homes.

Cordova, a Prince William Sound community of 2,500, has been

pounded with heavy, wet snow this week.

"I've been here 12 years and I have never seen anything like it," said Kelly

Weaverling, owner of Orca Book and Sound in downtown Cordova.

"The snow is extremely heavy. It is a little like shoveling mud."

The snow has downed trees and power lines, interrupting electrical

service since Monday.

"We'll go down and repair a section of line, and then a tree will come

down and take it out again," said Ken Gates, general manager of

Cordova Electric Cooperative. The avalanche wiped out four electrical

poles, and he estimated 250 people will be without power until Saturday.

Avalanches have struck before around Mile 5.5 but none so

catastrophically, said O'Leary, a backcountry skier who grew up in

Cordova and is the son of an avalanche forecaster.

In 1971, a series of avalanches buried a dog and knocked a woman off

her feet, he said. And about three years ago a slide damaged the roof and

side of the Elmer Gunnerson home, one of the four destroyed

Wednesday, the mayor said.

In April last year, heavy-equipment operator Gary Stone died in an

avalanche in a steep canyon north of the city, a few miles from

Wednesday's slide. Stone was running a backhoe as part of the

construction of a hydroelectric power plant when the slope gave way.

Fredston, of Anchorage, has helped recover the bodies of more than 30

avalanche victims, she said. This was the first time in her avalanche rescue

work that a buried victim was pulled out alive.

* Reporters Liz Ruskin, Peter Porco and Natalie Phillips can be reached

at, and