Crew clears slide paths

Access restored to Thane

Posted: Tuesday, March 28, 2000

State highway workers cleared avalanche debris from Thane Road this morning, opening one lane of traffic about 11 a.m.

State officials expected to have both lanes reopened by early afternoon.

Thane, a neighborhood of about 70 homes and 180 residents, was cut off from downtown and the rest of Juneau when an avalanche covered the road about 3 a.m. Monday.

State highway workers also brought a larger avalanche down across Thane Road closer to town about 8:40 a.m. Monday, dislodging any unstable snow before crews began clearing the road.

Road crews worked Monday and were three-quarters through the larger slide by 8 a.m. today. By 11, they had one lane open and allowed residents to leave. Kerby Wright, Juneau station foreman

for the Department of Transportation, said he expected the road to be fully open by 1 p.m.

The larger of the slides, the one brought down by state crews, was ``definitely the biggest one in the last 10 years,'' said Wright, a veteran of 20 years with DOT in Juneau.

As equipment cleared snow, two spotters, one on the road and the other in Douglas, talked to the crews by radio in case more snow slabs started sliding.

Wright did not expect more slides across the road, south of downtown. ``If there were going to be more, they would have happened Monday morning when it was raining and warmer.''

Snowbound: Life on the other side of slide


As the front-end loader took bites out of the bank of snow blocking Thane Road this morning, people waited.

Most Thane residents spent the morning at home, with a few driving to the avalanche site to check on progress.

Fifty-year Thane resident Walter Sperl said he hasn't ever had to wait more than a day to get through an avalanche to the rest of Juneau.

Briefcase in hand, standing a couple of feet from a boulder-sized hunk of wet snow, Sperl watched the heavy equipment work. After a few minutes of watching, he said he'd decided not to hike around the two miles of road blocked to traffic. He missed a doctor's appointment Monday and said it looked like he'd miss another two medical dates today.

A veteran of many a Thane Road avalanche, complete with tales of near-misses, Sperl was somewhat critical of how the snow-removal work was going. He said there should have been more information available over the radio for Thane residents. And he said state road workers should have plowed through the night, something highway officials said was unsafe.

``They should have let people know when you could walk around,'' Sperl said. ``They said yesterday no walking on the road, no walking on the beach. The man who was standing here said: `You can't go.'''

At a turnout near the Thane side of the slide, a half-dozen empty vehicles were parked. They belonged to Thane residents with employers unsympathetic to an avalanche excuse or to people who needed to get out for some other reason - to catch a plane or buy some groceries.

Ted Deats was waiting out the front-end loader as his two little boys played nearby.

``Yesterday was a day off,'' said Deats, who, like most state workers, had Seward's Day off. ``Today, I took the kids out and had fun.''

He agreed with Sperl that it seemed to be taking a lot longer than normal to clear the avalanche off the road. However, it seemed as if nothing really had been lost. In fact, he said, it was nice to spend some extra time with his family.

Deats said the avalanche had also managed to raise the interest of one of his home-schooled boys who is covering a subject where dangerous snow abounds - Antarctica.

``It's just an opportunity with the kids,'' he said. ``It's also a good, interesting sideline for his (Antarctica) unit study.''

To diminish the possibility of slides, howitzer shells were launched at all known avalanche paths Monday.

``We shot everything yesterday, double shots instead of one round'' for security reasons, Wright said. The temperature dropped about 7 degrees Monday afternoon, and he thought that would have stabilized the slopes.

DOT takes care throughout the winter to shake up the avalancheprone slopes above Thane Road, Wright said. ``But you don't always get the releases (of snow) you want.''

People sometimes camp out under tarps and in a variety of beached boats on the narrow shoreline just before the Thane Road avalanche zone begins.

``We always make a sweep with vehicles through there'' before using howitzers, Wright said. A helicopter flew over Monday and looked for cars or bodies. Nothing unusual was spotted in the squatters' area, dubbed the Oceana Hotel.

``The area is signed (for a slide zone and no parking), and hopefully people are smart enough not to camp there,'' Wright added.

Joan Decker, director of the Glory Hole, a homeless shelter downtown, canvassed her clients and found no one missing, she said today.

Police dispatcher Camille Brill said she fielded three calls from Thane Road residents Monday and another three this morning seeking updates. No one was overly concerned or in need of special services, Brill said.

``Most of the Thane residents have real good attitudes about (the avalanche),'' Brill said. ``They just say, `Well, OK, we'll deal with it.'''

The first avalanche was reported by a citizen at 3:01 a.m. Monday. The naturally caused avalanche spanned about 100 feet of road and was about 20 feet high.

It catapulted down the Cross Bay Creek avalanche path, near Suicide Falls. No one was reported missing. At that point, Thane residents were still connected by telephone, and still receiving electricity.

Subsequent avalanches were purposely created by a state highway crew firing 105mm howitzer shells across Gastineau Channel from a site above Sandy Beach. Firing began about 8:30 a.m. Monday and triggered a much bigger slide down the Snowslide Creek avalanche path 10 minutes later. About 50 feet deep, it covered about 300 feet of road a little south of the GCI earth station.

The slide broke a line carrying Snettisham power to Juneau's electrical grid. The upper line was carried down by the slide and collided with the beach line, sending off a fireworks-like display of blue sparks.

Alaska Electric Light and Power switched to diesel generators and restored power to all customers by 9:55 a.m.

More snow was predicted for today.

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