Avalanche steals a life

One man rescued after 6 hours burried under snow in Cordova

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2000

ANCHORAGE - A Cordova woman was killed Wednesday when her home was flattened by a powerful avalanche.

The body of Martha Quales, 63, was recovered from the crushed home, which was moved 30 feet by the avalanche at Mile 5 Copper River Highway, said Greg Wilkinson, Alaska State Troopers spokesman in Anchorage.

Quales' housemate, Jerry LeMaster, 50, was found alive by searchers probing the remnants of the snowslide, which occurred shortly before 10 a.m. in the Prince William Sound community about 150 miles southeast of Anchorage.

Wilkinson said a trooper at the scene reported searchers dug down deep into the snow to find LeMaster, who was beneath some wreckage created by the avalanche. A space was excavated to allow him room to breathe while rescuers tried to free him.

LeMaster was removed from the wreckage about 4 p.m. and taken to Cordova Community Medical Center. He reportedly was having difficulty breathing but was otherwise in good condition, according to Wilkinson.

``Apparently whatever he was under kept him from being crushed,'' Wilkinson said. ``He had no complaints of injuries, and was alert, moving his arms and talking to rescuers.''

Another person was recovered uninjured from a demolished home, Wilkinson said. Everyone else living in the area has been accounted for, he said.

A trooper at the scene said more than a dozen buildings were hit by the half-mile-wide avalanche. Many of the structures were pushed off their foundations, and several were destroyed, Wilkinson said.

About 3 feet of snow mixed with rain fell on Cordova before the slide. Fire department volunteers were guarding the avalanche chute, saying the area remains at risk of more snowslides.

Witnesses said the avalanche covered the highway with heavy snow measuring 15 feet or deeper in places. It occurred in an area where the road runs along a narrow shelf between the steep slopes of Mount Eccles and Eyak Lake.

``It was like an explosion,'' said Dune Lankard, whose home was in the avalanche path. ``Windows started crashing all around and snow was coming in.''

Lankard said he saw several houses that ``disintegrated'' after being struck by the fast-moving snow.

Trees in the avalanche path were mowed down and tossed against houses and vehicles, said Lankard, whose Jeep was among the vehicles badly damaged. Roofs, insulation and other debris were swallowed up in the onrush and carried more than 100 yards onto the lake, he said.

``This is by far the worst (avalanche) I've ever seen,'' said Lankard, who was among the dozens of volunteers probing the snow for possible victims.

City and private snowplows were at work to clear the highway. Cordova police said they hoped it could be reopened by late today.

Thick, wet snow mixed with rain continued to fall today in the Prince William Sound community, according to the National Weather Service. Winds were also blowing at 15 mph, with stronger gusts.

David Titcomb also witnessed the avalanche from his basement apartment in a triplex.

``It was like a freight train - a big billow of wind and trees snapping,'' said Titcomb. ``I started getting up to look up the hill and thought, `Obviously this is more than a windstorm.'''

Titcomb said the avalanche chute had been scoured of trees along the road and up the mountainside.

The avalanche is the second fatal snowslide in the Cordova area in as many winters.

Last April Gary Stone, a 46-year-old heavy-equipment operator, was buried in an avalanche in a steep canyon north of the city. Stone was running a backhoe as part of the construction of a hydroelectric power plant when a load of snow on a 2,000-foot slope gave way.

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