Mother, 1 child drown

Woman died trying to pull son from pond

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2000

A Juneau woman and her son drowned in an accident Monday afternoon at a pond on North Douglas Highway.

Luann Lynn Spiech, 34, and her son Kelvin, 10, were the victims of spongy spring ice and cold water on a Presidents Day stroll that turned deadly.

``We are all in shock here,'' said Frankie Pillifant of Juneau Community Charter School where Luann Spiech was employed.

``Luann was a integral part of our school, professionally and personally,'' said Pillifant, a member of the school's academic policy board.

Spiech's son was a fifth-grader at Harborview Elementary School.

``Kelvin was a bright, enthusiastic and extremely well-mannered boy - just a model student,'' said Harborview Principal Bob Dye. ``It's a tragedy.''


Divers search: Vern Fiehler, in the yellow float jacket, of Capital City Fire and Rescue, gives instuctions to diver Joe Zuboff, far right, during the search for Luann Lynn Spiech at a pond near Fish Creek on Monday.


Another boy, like Kelvin a fifth-grader at Harborview, went into the water, but was able to swim to safety. His name was not released.

Dozens of emergency vehicles and personnel responded to the scene near Fish Creek, so many that exhaust from idling engines created plumes of fog that drifted into the darkening sky. Rescue workers who had done everything they could paced up and down the wet highway, all too aware of the time, since each passing moment meant less hope for the victims.

``One hour 40 minutes,'' a grim-faced firefighter said to no one in particular, just before 6 p.m.

The scene of flashing emergency lights and crunching gravel was markedly different from the one June 17, 1995, at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. On that date, Todd Adam Spiech wed Luann Lynn Reno, with the Rev. Larry Rorem presiding.

The bride, wearing her grandmother's wedding dress, was a graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast and the owner and only teacher at Summit Elementary School. Kelvin, then 5, was the best man.

Monday afternoon was also very different from the scene at Bartlett Regional Hospital on Jan. 7, 1999, when son Adam, weighing 7 pounds 11 ounces, was born to the Spiech family.

Luann Spiech was carrying baby Adam on her Monday walk near Gastineau Channel. At Fish Creek, there are two ponds, both on the channel side of the highway. The mother and children walked down to north pond, a small but deep body of water about 400 by 250 feet.

Enjoying the fresh air, Kelvin and his friend ventured onto some ice. Apparently the ice, unstable because of changing tides, broke loose from the shore and started to float away. Then it began to disintegrate, and the boys fell into the water.

Luann Spiech put 13-month old baby Adam on the shore, removed her gloves and shoes and waded in to help the boys. A woman, 36, on the other side of the

pond recognized the danger and ran two miles to her home, where she phoned authorities at 3:54 p.m. Her husband ran to the scene, arriving moments before Capital City Fire & Rescue, and picked up the baby.

As Incident Commander Lt. Pete Hettinger set up shop, a boy appeared at the back door of his ambulance. ``He was soaking wet, and we treated him accordingly. We took off his wet clothes, and put on warm blankets and heat packs. He went home with his parents,'' Hettinger said.

Other than the wet boy, the scene was silent, Hettinger said. ``Initially we did not see anyone, and we have been trying to recover people from the water ever since,'' he said about 6 p.m. as darkness fell.

Three divers from the Juneau Water Rescue Team used a ``parallel line search'' maneuver, where each diver is tethered to someone on shore so the distance surveyed is consistent. The flashlights of divers could occasionally be seen illuminating the ice from below.

``The pond is not very big but it's very deep,'' said firefighter/medic John Niemi. ``The divers said it dropped off very rapidly'' to 20 or 30 feet.

Kelvin Spiech was recovered shortly before 5 p.m. and flown by TEMSCO Helicopter to the hospital, where he was declared dead at the emergency room. About an hour later, the search for his mother was suspended because of darkness.

The search resumed at 6:50 a.m. today, Niemi said, and Luann Spiech's body was recovered about 7:45.

``Luann was an accomplished organist, pianist and choir member,'' said Rev. Rorem of Shepherd of the Valley, ``and has been very involved with our church since the early '90s. Her son (Kelvin) has been at her side almost constantly.''

``The school she had for years was at our church,'' Rorem said. ``Lately she has been working in music education at Juneau Community Charter School, but not full-time. She was always involved with children; she had a real gift.''

Kelvin was ``very quiet but had a wonderful grin,'' Rorem said. ``He was a much-loved child in the congregation.'' Many members of the church went to the Bartlett emergency room Monday to offer their support to the family, he said.

``It's a tragedy, and we have lost two wonderful members of our community,'' Rorem added.

Kelvin, who delivered the Empire on a route near Evergreen Cemetery, was a student at Harborview School, where his father, Todd Spiech, was evening custodian. Dye, Harborview principal, went around to each class today, talking to staff and students, helping them deal with grief and loss. Other district staff, including psychologists, helped.

According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, unintentional injuries - a category including drowning, fires and motor vehicle crashes - are the leading cause of death of Alaskans age 1 to 44 years. In 1995, the rate in Alaska was 83 percent higher than the national rate.

Alaska's drowning rate was five times that of the other 49 states.

The division said many injuries and deaths could be avoided by use of safety belts, helmets, smoke detectors, personal flotation devices and gun locks.

According to Kim Kiefer of Juneau Parks and Recreation, there are two ponds off Fish Creek. One, the south pond, enclosed in trees, is still covered with ice. It is open to the creek itself, and considered part of the Mendenhall Wetlands, Kiefer said.

The other, the north pond, is surrounded by a dike, said Juneau Fire Hall Chief Scott Chehock.

``Fresh water feeds into it from a spring, and that's where the ice broke,'' Chehock said. This pond, where ice was about 2 inches thick, is affected by tidal flow, he said.

Empire photographer Brian Wallace contributed to this report.

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