SITKA — As the sun began to set over the Sitka Sound on Wednesday, volunteer crews left the site on Harbor Mountain where they had been working since noon to unearth three men, all of whom are feared dead. Shortly after 8 p.m., the trucks, which only hours before had carried anxious volunteers up the mountain, returned to Grace Harbor church, their passengers somber and covered in mud.
The tears in their eyes made it clear they were not returning on their own will. Had fire rescue and police officials not called off the search for the evening, the volunteers would likely have worked through the night in an attempt to find William Stortz, 62, and Elmer and Ulises Diaz, 26 and 25, respectively.
Just before 7 p.m., Officer Gary Cranford of the Sitka Police Department arrived at the church, which has functioned as a base of operations for eager volunteers and a refuge for families displaced by the slide. He announced to a crowded auditorium that the dozen or so volunteers working at the site of the slide would have to leave both for their own safety and to make it easier for the rescue dogs to pick up any helpful scents.
“It’s not like what you see on a Hollywood movie,” Cranford said. “The amount of people we have up there are throwing off the scent.”
Fire safety and police officials would continue working after the volunteers left, Cranford said, and he assured everybody in the church the rescue officials were working as quickly as they could within the confines of safety.
“You can never respond fast enough for families and friends that it hits the closest,” he said. “I know you get tired of hearing the word ‘safe’ or ‘safety,’ but that’s what it comes down to.”
By the end of the day the recovery crews, using heavy machinery, chainsaws and any other means at their disposal, had removed 25 yards worth of debris from the site where the landslide obliterated a house in which the three missing men had been working the day before. However, this represents only a fraction of the earth that the landslide displaced.
In its wake, the mass of rock, mud and timber that barreled almost 1,500 feet down the mountain during the slide, left a gaping channel pronounced enough that it rerouted the flow of water from the top of the mountain, effectively becoming a waterfall. Fearing the new flow of water may destabilize the land under the homes beneath the disaster site, prompting further slides, city officials evacuated 24 families. This problem was worsened by the flow of water coming from the plumbing of the house that was crushed.
The day was not without its small victories though. About half of the nearly two dozen families displaced by the slide were allowed to return home after city officials deemed their homes safe. A crew worked throughout the day to cut a new channel to divert the water away from the homes. The crew was successful, and the city lifted the evacuation order Wednesday evening.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, City and Borough of Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell and Fire Chief Dave Miller praised the community for pulling together to aid in the recovery effort, help shelter families who had been evacuated and to help the loved ones of the missing men.
“It’s a small community,” McConnell said. “Nine-thousand people is not that many. Everybody knows somebody here.”
Miller said many in the community reached out to help in some way. In fact, it’s more than the recovery area can support.
“The Sitka community is awesome,” he said after the press conference. “If I got on the radio and said we need help, we’d really have more people than we could ever use.”
McConnell and Miller were right. By press time Wednesday night, the Grace Harbor church was still filled with community members and volunteers, many of whom had been there all day doing whatever they could to help the recovery effort and the members of the Diaz family, who had been in the church since the night before.
The church’s pastor, Paul McArthur, was among those on his feet all day going wherever he saw the need to help. One of his primary duties: consoling the family members of Elmer and Ulises Diaz.
“As I talked to their father, who stood most of the day at the corner of the church wanting to get out there and do something while we were still being told to wait, I realized it could have been me wanting to get out there and look for my son,” McArthur said.
It almost was.
MacArthur’s son is completing construction on a new home located two doors down from the house the Diaz brothers were working in at the time of the slide. However, his son isn’t living in the house yet and the deluge of mud narrowly missed his son’s home.
The support for Sitka runs even deeper than just the immediate community members, however. Gov. Bill Walker flew in to show his support and said the state will do all it can to aid those affected by the landslide. State Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, was also present for the press conference.
“I’ve prided myself on the fact that I’ve been governor for nine months, and I was able to say I’ve never had a bad day,” Walker said after the press conference, fighting back tears. “I can’t say that anymore. Today was a bad day.”
Lying in wait
There’s a chance the situation in Sitka could get worse. The slide originated about 1,000 feet above the site where the missing men are believed to be, and while there is certainly a lot of debris near the base of the mountain, there is not nearly as much as there should be based on the length of the slide, said Lance Ewers an officer with the Sitka Police Department.
Ewers said the remaining sediment, which officials haven’t seen yet, is lying in wait somewhere above the recovery site, and geologists estimate that it will probably come down at some point. And with weather models showing more heavy rain Friday, it’s likely that will happen sooner rather than later.