2 rock slides in 2 days - one resulting in serious injury - highlight risks of Seward Highway

An Anchorage apprentice lineman and father remained in critical condition Sunday, suffering from brain injuries sustained when a rock fell from a cliff and smashed his car as he drove to work near Milepost 111 of the Seward Highway early Friday morning.

One day later and a few miles down the road, a rock slide closed lanes of the Seward Highway at Milepost 108.5, according to police. The slide was cleared in a few hours, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy.

News of the near-fatal event Friday coupled with Saturday’s night rockslide has drivers of the only road south out of Anchorage wondering: What are the chances?

State officials say the risk of rock fall to Seward Highway drivers is “relatively small” -- but uncertain.

“It is frustrating to the public and department that the rocks fall unpredictably, and typical measures we take to improve safety (seatbelts, moderate speeds, sober driving) don’t decrease risk in this case,” McCarthy said.

Rocks raining down from steep cliffs have been a problem between Mileposts 104-114 for years, McCarthy said. This winter has been particularly active: The 7.0 earthquake on Nov. 30 dislodged five dump trucks worth of rock and debris, leading the DOT to advise against traveling down the highway for several days in early December.

There have been other periods of high rock fall activity, McCarthy said, such as in 2014 and 2015 when rocks the “size of small cars" tumbled down and the DOT removed a large boulder near the Potter Weight Station that geologists had tagged as a risk.

McCarthy said she didn’t know what specifically caused the Friday or Saturday rock falls. But rocks tend to fall more after a freeze-thaw cycle with rain and wind -- the exact weather we’ve been having, she said.

The DOT is in the design and planning stages of a multimillion-dollar project to make the corridor between Mileposts 104-114 less prone to the hazards of falling rock. Loose rock will be removed, bigger boulders will be secured with bolts and mesh nets to catch debris will be installed.

In December, DOT started two mitigation projects in the area that had been “in the works for a long time,” McCarthy said.

None of that helped Jason Carter, a married apprentice lineman with the IBEW Local 1547 union who was on his way to work early Thursday morning when a large rock tumbled from a cliff just south of McHugh Creek just after 5 a.m., smashing the roof of his Kia Forte as he drove, according to the Anchorage Police Department and an online fundraising site.

Carter, a father of three, suffered brain trauma and was rushed to Providence Alaska Medical Center where he underwent emergency surgery, according to a Facebook page created to keep family and friends up to date on his condition.

He remains in critical condition and under sedation but has shown positive signs like being able to move his legs, according to the page, Jason’s Healing.

An online fundraiser for Carter and his family had raised $51,000 as of Sunday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the 7.0 earthquake. It was Nov. 30 not Dec. 30.