Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2004-01-22
Submitted By: Kip Melling & CAIC
Place: Portage
State: AK
Country: USA
Fatalities: 1
Summary: Roof slide kills Forest Service employee

Falling ice blamed for death

By Daniel Bergen


Updated: 11:46 p.m. ET Jan. 25, 2004

Jan. 22- A block of ice has taken the life of a U.S. Forest Service employee.

According to Alaska State Troopers, at about noon Thursday, ice apparently slid off the roof of a Forest Service warehouse near Portage, near the Begich Boggs Visitor Center at Portage Glacier, and struck 23-year-old Jeffrey Nissman of Girdwood.

CPR couldn't revive Nissman.

The Forest Service says it's investigating Nissman's death.

Media Report

Adventurer died walking out the door

Craig Medred

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: February 1, 2004)

Six months ago, Jeffrey Nissman of Girdwood survived an hourlong battle with an aggressive black bear by repeatedly beating it off with a stick.

Three years ago, the same Jeffrey Nissman led a climb up the dangerous West Rib of North America's tallest peak, Mount McKinley.

In between, he engaged in all sorts of potentially deadly adventure sports -- paragliding in Australia, climbing in Ecuador and skiing all over the avalanche-prone Alaska backcountry.

And 10 days ago at Portage, the 29-year-old man was killed by bad architecture.

There was no reason for Nissman to die. His death may have been the most senseless in Alaska this year.

He was crushed, his family says, when a 650-pound slab of ice and snow slid off the metal roof of the U.S. Forest Service's work center.

His brother, Dr. Steve Nissman, sent me an e-mail calling it a "freak accident'' and asking that I do something to round out the portrait of his brother, who had been described in news stories as simply a Forest Service volunteer.

Jeffrey was that, but much more: A graduate of the University of Vermont, a trained wild lands firefighter, an accomplished mountaineer, a first-rate skier, a friend to many in Girdwood, he was also the man who designed and operated the avalanche Web site run by the Chugach National Forest.

That Web site is now out of order.

"Due to a tragic accident on the Glacier Ranger District on Thursday, Jan. 22, the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center will not be posting advisories until the end of the month,'' the site says. "The Forest Service, the Avalanche Center, friends and family lost Jeff Nissman when a roof avalanched on him Thursday in Portage Valley.

"Jeff had worked for the Forest Service eight years, four of them here on the Glacier Ranger District. Before that he was in Juneau on the Tongass National Forest. Jeff was a key part of the Avalanche Center and the Cabins and Trails program. We were ... looking forward to his cheerful voice bringing us the morning avalanche advisories in the near future."

That Nissman will no longer be making those recordings is not the fault of some "accident'' as so many seem to want to call this.

It is the fault of a bad design, a deadly design.

Metal roofs are prone to avalanche. Everyone in the Alaska building business smarter than a cordless drill knows this. And yet poorly designed buildings -- buildings that dump their inevitable avalanches onto where people walk -- keep getting built because nobody seems to care.

Couple benign neglect with bad design and what happens is an innocent like Jeffrey Nissman ends up dead.

If the Forest Service had used a building designed to move snow safely away from areas of human activity, Nissman would be alive today. But the agency didn't. It opted for a quick-and-easy structure similar to a lot of buildings around Anchorage.

"It's quite interesting, if you drive around town, to see the number of problems,'' said local avalanche expert Jill Fredston. "I would like to know the number of roof (avalanche) fatalities. We've had a number of these. ... It's such a sad deal.''

Actually, it's more than sad. The failure of those in authority to do something about this is unconscionable. The safety police preach at us these days to buckle the seat belts in our automobiles, wear a helmet when we do anything more vigorous than brush our teeth and buddy up before venturing into the wilderness because Lord only knows what could be out there.

When Timothy Treadwell ends up dead and eaten after venturing onto the Katmai coast to hang with 1,000-pound grizzly bears known for their capacity to kill adult moose, everyone wants to know "how could this happen?'' State and federal agencies are called in to investigate. It's front-page news all over the state.

When Jeffrey Nissman ends up dead beneath a roof avalanche after walking out of his place of work, it's "oh well, accidents happen.''

Something is wrong here.

We shouldn't be required to scan the eaves for killer avalanches before entering or departing buildings in the Anchorage area. Where are the safety police when they could actually be useful?

This is a problem with a solution. It's not about trying to alter people's behavior. No, this one is simply about fixing bad design to ensure innocent people don't die walking out the door of a home or office.

Trust me. I live in a house with metal roofs, and I've learned about roof avalanches the hard way.

When we were building the house, building inspectors who knew nothing about log construction hassled us about a variety of meaningless, sometimes petty, construction details. Not a one of them paid any attention to where our metal roofs would dump snow.

One of those roofs has the potential to be a killer, just like the roof that got Nissman. It is flat enough to allow significant snow accumulations, if Hillside winds don't blow the snow away. Over the years, it has avalanched occasionally with enough force to shake the entire house.

That's why we finally built a deck beneath it. Whenever the snow load is heavy on the roof, we leave that deck buried in snow. It discourages anyone from walking into the avalanche zone and getting hurt.

Meanwhile, the entrance to the house is sheltered by a roofed-over porch to protect people from second-story avalanches that would otherwise fall over the door. Were it not for that porch, we'd be regularly running a gantlet similar to that which killed Nissman.

Our solution isn't perfect. Some houses are better designed for snowy climates than ours. I cite this one only to illustrate how simple the solutions can be and how regularly roof avalanches get overlooked.

I think about this now every time I grab a pair of skis off the rack in the porch and head out the door.

I think about Jeffrey Nissman too. I can't help thinking about how he didn't need to die.

"It's happened before,'' Fredston said, "and it will probably happen again."

But it shouldn't.

Bad enough that people die playing dangerous games in Alaska. They shouldn't need to treat walking out the door as a risk sport too.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at