Company charged for avalanche death

Firm warmed of high risk of snowslides

Posted: Wednesday, July 26, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- A Bellingham, Wash., engineering company and its president were indicted on manslaughter charges Tuesday for the death of a worker killed in an avalanche near Cordova last year.

The grand jury indictment charged both Whitewater Engineering and company president Thom Fischer with recklessly causing Gary Stone's death.

Stone, 46, was operating a backhoe in a steep canyon about seven miles northeast of Cordova when a massive load of snow slid down a 2,000-foot slope and buried him on April 15, 1999.

At the time Stone was working on a hydroelectric project being constructed by Whitewater.

Neither Whitewater officials nor their lawyer, Charlie Cole of Fairbanks, returned phone calls seeking comment.

The company had hired avalanche forecaster Dave Hamre of Anchorage to do a study of avalanche danger at the site. In a letter to the company one month before the accident, Hamre warned the site had a high risk for avalanches. He suggested Whitewater reduce work hours and hire an avalanche prevention specialist.

More snow than normal had fallen in the mountains around Cordova last year and rain fell the night before the fatal avalanche, increasing the danger of a snowslide.

About two weeks before the accident occurred, Whitewater had applied to the Forest Service for a permit to use aerial explosives to control avalanches in the work zone, District Ranger Cal Baker said.

``A permit was issued to authorize the use of explosives. My understanding is that they did not use it. I don't know why they didn't,'' Baker said.

Stone was working directly below snow-laden slopes when the snowslide came down. The avalanche wiped out a temporary log bridge and filled 100 yards of a creek with about 20 feet of snow.

Stone's body was not recovered for two days because of the continued danger of avalanches in the area.

Alaska State Troopers, Cordova police and the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the accident.

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