Detailed Accident Report
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Seward Highway, South of Anchorage
Summary: 3 bulldozer operators clearing road caught, 1 killed
For additional stories and photos, goto the Anchorage Daily News website at:
Slide kills railroad employee
Bulldozer blasted into Inlet
By RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News reporter
Laboring in the most extreme
avalanche conditions in
decades, an Alaska Railroad
worker assisting highway
crews at a slide near Bird
Flats on the Seward
Highway suffered fatal injuries Tuesday when a second
avalanche fell from the mountains and crushed him.
Kerry Brookman, 53, a heavy equipment operator with
the railroad for 21 years, died Tuesday evening after
being airlifted to Providence Alaska Medical Center
and spending most of the afternoon in surgery. He
suffered a crushed pelvis, internal injuries and bleeding.
Brookman, operating a bulldozer, was working with
two other state highway bulldozer operators when the
second avalanche struck about 12:30 p.m. Brookman's
35,000-pound D6 Caterpiller was carried about 400
feet into Turnagain Arm, its cab crushed.
The deadly turn to what had been two days of
inconvenience and hassle led officials to once again
abandon efforts to clear the Seward Highway for the
day. They couldn't predict when the road would reopen.
Girdwood remained cut off from both sides by about a
dozen avalanches, including at least three that fell
Tuesday. Some of the slides were more than 1,000 feet
wide and over 10 feet deep. The current wave of
avalanches began Sunday evening.
Conditions could even worsen today, with
above-freezing temperatures, possible rain and winds of
80 mph with gusts to 100 predicted from Turnagain Arm
to the Anchorage Hillside.
The Anchorage School District canceled classes for its
49,000 students on Tuesday because subdivision roads
all over town were still buried in snow, making it
difficult for buses to get in and out, said Steve Kalmes,
the district's transportation director. He said the district
will be watching the weather later in the week, too, in
case high winds and warm temperatures make the roads
The Girdwood K-8 school will remain closed today.
State officials urged people to refrain from highway or
off-road travel and said the potential was very high for
additional avalanches in Cordova, Valdez, Seward,
Hope, Cooper Landing, Anchorage and Eagle River.
"We really want to caution folks: If they don't have to be
out, if there's any way they can avoid traveling, they
really shouldn't do it," said director David Liebersbach
of the Alaska Division of Emergency Services.
A fresh slide blocked Eklutna Lake Road at Mile 5.7
sometime between 5:30 p.m and 6 p.m in an area not
prone to avalanches because it's so well forested, said
Chugach State Park Superintendent Al Meiners. The
slide, which stranded several snowmachiners and about
a dozen residents, is a sign of just how bad conditions
have become, he said.
"There are no slide paths across that road - now there
is," Meiners said. "It's bad now and it's going to get
The Old Glenn Highway was closed by a new
avalanche Tuesday night at Mile 7.5, and another slide
closed the Glenn Highway at Mile 95 near the
Matanuska Glacier, state troopers reported.
Earlier Tuesday, nine people stranded in their cars
overnight between two avalanches south of Girdwood
were rescued by an Alaska Air National Guard HH-60
Pavehawk helicopter. They arrived in two loads at
Kulis Air Guard Base in Anchorage, at 10:05 a.m. and
10:55 a.m. Ten others who had been trapped for hours
at the Portage railroad depot were freed Monday night
when a heavy equipment operator broke through.
Dozens of travelers remain stranded at Girdwood,
where they're holing up at the local school, at bed and
breakfasts and the Alyeska Prince Hotel.
Others sat it out at the Tesoro gas station at the
Girdwood turnoff, hoping the road might open. Several
were on their way to Anchorage for medical treatment.
Among them were Soldotna residents Mariel Taylor,
10, and her mom, Sandra Udelhoven-Taylor.
"Yesterday was pre-op," Sandra said. "I have been
calling and (the doctor) has moved it to Thursday, if we
get through by then."
Both Sandra and Mariel slept in the Tesoro parking lot
on Monday night.
Highway officials, facing the likelihood that they won't
break through to Girdwood until at least Thursday, were
discussing turning the straight stretch of highway near
the Girdwood turnoff into an emergency airstrip to bring
in supplies and allow people to leave. They also
considered focusing all efforts on clearing the
Girdwood airport, which was buried in snow.
"I went around and kind of assessed how much food we
have here in the grocery stores," said Trooper Sgt. Lee
Oly, of Girdwood. "They're running low on milk and
fresh fruit and stuff, but the shelves seemed pretty well
stocked with everything else."
Edie Handsaker, from Kenai, was driving up to
Anchorage with her husband, who was supposed to
undergo knee surgery this week. Handsaker was also
delivering a Rottweiler puppy to a friend.
"We named (the dog) Avalanche," she said as she stood
smoking a cigarette outside the Tesoro station.
Avalanche, the dog, was snuck into the Alyeska Prince
Hotel on Sunday and Monday, but was going to stay at a
Girdwood resident's house on Tuesday night, she said.
State highway officials started the day with different
plans. Joe Perkins, commissioner of the state
Department of Transportation, invited reporters to the
Bird Flats avalanche, about 30 miles south of
downtown Anchorage, where he hoped to put on a
victory-at-hand demonstration at 2 p.m.
During the morning, a helicopter bombed the hillside's
chutes with explosives to trigger avalanches from any
remaining snow. Terry Onslow, an avalanche forecaster
for the Transportation Department, told workers it was
safe to begin clearing the 10-foot to 15-foot snow from
the highway, officials said.
But the wind quickly picked up, blowing snow back into
"When we started, it was dead calm," said Bill Mowl,
an Anchorage district transportation superintendent. "An
hour later, it went to hell."
The new avalanche roared down a famed chute called
Five Fingers, Onslow said.
Dave Hamre, an avalanche expert with the Alaska
Railroad, was flying above the area in a chartered ERA
helicopter at the time of the slide and had also thought it
safe to work, said Ernie Piper, an assistant vice
president for the railroad.
According to Piper, Hamre and the pilot spotted the
bulldozer that Brookman, the railroad worker, had been
operating. Brookman's body was buried by snow, but
they saw his hand sticking out, waving.
The helicopter landed on the snow near Brookman and
Hamre and the pilot pulled him out and loaded him
aboard. They flew him directly to the hospital.
At 2 p.m., instead of hosting the media at an active
worksite, Commissioner Perkins was sitting in the
passenger seat of a Ford Expedition, the effort
"We were going to let people get down in there to see
where we were clearing," Perkins told a reporter. "We
thought it was safe."
* Daily News reporters Karen Aho, Molly Brown, Tony
Hopfinger, S.J. Komarnitsky, Elizabeth Manning, Doug
O'Harra, Natalie Phillips and Peter Porco contributed to
With no time to escape,
workers braced for slide
By NATALIE PHILLIPS
and CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News reporters
Larry Bushnell saw it coming.
Just seconds before another avalanche ripped down on
the Seward Highway on Tuesday afternoon, a spotter
radioed him and two other state bulldozer operators
working in the Bird Flats area. The message: Get out
and get out now.
But how do you prepare for an avalanche blast with
only a few seconds warning? There weren't many
choices, Bushnell recalled later.
All three spun their bulldozers to face the mountain and
lifted their blades in the air to absorb the brunt of the
"I could hear the windows starting to crackle and
shatter," Bushnell said. "Then one popped and so did
the others. There was so much pressure."
Bushnell, who works for the state Department of
Transportation, was belted in his seat. He said he turned
his face to the left, taking the force of the pounding snow
with his right side. The blast of air ripped off his
glasses and radio headset.
"At one point, I couldn't breathe," he recalled. "I was
gasping for air. I thought I was a goner. It didn't move
the dozer, but I felt like I was being ripped out of it."
When the snow settled, Bushnell was cemented in a
field of snow that leveled at his chest.
He looked over at the Caterpillar that had been working
50 feet to his right. It had vanished.
The snow pummeled that bulldozer so hard it was
pushed several hundred feet onto the Turnagain Arm
mud flats, and flipped over. The driver, Kerry
Brookman, an employee of the Alaska Railroad, was
quickly airlifted out by a helicopter. He died Tuesday
night at Providence Alaska Medical Center.
The third Caterpillar, driven by the DOT's John Rajek,
was 50 yards from the other two bulldozers and was
Phil Walczak, a cameraman for KTUU-Channel 2, had
been videotaping the Caterpillars. Moments before the
avalanche, Rajek, the bulldozer driver, saw the
photographer scramble toward a KTUU vehicle.
"I saw the photographer running," he said, "and I
thought, 'What the hell is going on?' "
Then, he said, the DOT spotter screamed over the
headphones: "Avalanche! Avalanche! Avalanche!"
Inside the KTUU car, reporter Laura Pappetti looked up
and saw the snow coming down.
"It looked like everything was in slow motion," Pappetti
said. "Then it hit the car."
The car shook, but the snow was shallow on the edge of
the avalanche. Closer to the middle, where Rajek was
working, it was deeper but he was able to walk away.
The other two Cat drivers weren't so lucky.
The avalanche, Rajek said, caught Bushnell's Cat in the
front and blasted out the windows. "The only thing that
saved him was that he was wearing his seat belt."
The seat belt held Bushnell in place as the avalanche
swept through and over the Cat.
Brookman was in much worse shape. The avalanche
rolled his 35,000-pound D6 Cat out onto the mud flats,
with the snow crashing through the cab, tearing his
Yet when the avalanche ended and the snow began to
settle, Pappetti said it appeared at first that everyone
had come through fine.
"I was trying to wave to the guys in the Cats to see if
everybody was OK," she said. "I thought they were
It took her a second to realize that Bushnell was trapped
and waving for help. She ran to him.
"I got over there and his leg was stuck, stuck pretty bad
(in snow)," she said. "He was calm. He told me to be
careful because there was broken glass everywhere."
She started digging with her hands, worried about
getting Bushnell out, worried about another avalanche
coming down. She couldn't believe how hard the
avalanche had compacted the snow.
"It's solid as a rock," she said. "It just packs in
Said Bushnell: "We didn't have anything but our hands. I
was very packed in."
Bushnell found the radio headset and was able to report
to coworkers that he was OK.
"They wanted to know about the other guy," Bushnell
said. "A helicopter was already rescuing him."
Pappetti finally had to get help from someone with a
shovel to free Bushnell.
Work on the road was immediately shut down and
Bushnell headed to his Bird Creek home, just a few
miles away. He said he suffered cuts and bruised ribs,
and decided to go to an Anchorage hospital emergency
room to get checked out.
Later in the afternoon, avalanche expert Doug Fesler
flew over the site returning from a trip to assess power
line damage along Turnagain Arm and on the Kenai
The bulldozer in the Inlet "looked like a beer can kicked
out there," he said. It was upside down with its treads in
Based on the avalanche path and debris, Fesler
estimated the avalanche roared across the highway at
between 100 and 125 mph.
"Getting hit by the wind is like getting hit with a fist,"
Fesler said. "Getting hit by a powder blast is like
getting hit by a fist with lead fill."