Company charged in death of worker

Employee died in avalanche after firm told of slide hazard

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

ANCHORAGE A Washington engineering company and its owner were arraigned Wednesday in Superior Court on manslaughter charges in the death of an employee killed in an avalanche near Cordova.

Whitewater Engineering of Bellingham, Wash., and company owner Thom Fischer are charged in the death of Gary Stone, 46. He was killed on April 15, 1999, when a massive load of snow slid down a slope seven miles northeast of Cordova.

Stone, who was working on a hydroelectric project being constructed by Whitewater, was operating a backhoe in a steep canyon at the time.

The company had hired an avalanche forecaster who warned of the danger in a letter to the company. About two weeks before the accident occurred, Whitewater had applied to the U.S. Forest Service for a permit to use aerial explosives to control avalanches in the work zone, according to district ranger Cal Baker. The permit was issued, but explosives never were used, he said.

Jeff Feldman, the companys lawyer, said Wednesday that Whitewater is innocent.

The company believes that it took all reasonable steps to address the avalanche risk..., he said.

Assistant Attorney General Helen Valkavich said companies and individuals representing them are responsible for maintaining a safe work site.

If convicted, the company could be fined up to $500,000 and the owner could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. No trial date was set.

In 1996, Houston Contracting Co., was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the asphyxiation death of a welder at Prudhoe Bay in 1994. Damon Monzingo, 22, of Fairbanks, died from a buildup of argon gas.

It was the first time in Alaska a company was found guilty in a criminal homicide case.

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