Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-02-01
Submitted By: WWAN
Place: Seward Highway, South of Anchorage
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: 3 bulldozer operators clearing road caught, 1 killed

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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

dangerous.

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

worse."

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

avalanche-prone chutes.

"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

abandoned.

"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

this story

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

avalanche.

"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

only dusted.

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

clothing.

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

waving back."

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

everywhere."

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

Peninsula.

The bulldozer in the Inlet "looked like a beer can kicked

out there," he said. It was upside down with its treads in

the air.

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."