A midday crash Friday on the Seward Highway involving a tour bus and about six other vehicles resulted in one death and at least three critical injuries, according to Alaska State Troopers. The Seward Highway was closed at Mile 80 for about 10 hours as emergency crews rushed to help the injured and troopers conducted their investigation.
Witnesses said the crash sequence began when the Anchorage-bound bus rear-ended a pickup and trailer that were slowing for a turning vehicle. The bus rolled into oncoming traffic and was hit head-on by a southbound SUV, the witnesses said. The driver of the SUV, 55-year-old John Zollner III of Anchorage, was killed, troopers said.
Troopers in Soldotna got a report of the crash at 12:18 p.m. The road was closed until around 10:30 p.m., according to an Anchorage Police Department dispatcher.
A medevac helicopter and ground ambulances were used to take the injured people to an Anchorage hospital, while a state medical examiner vehicle sped toward the accident in the early afternoon.
Troopers said other people were injured and needed to be taken to a hospital for medical treatment or evaluation.
Ken Graves said the chain of events began when he slowed toward the entrance of the wildlife center. Just ahead, in his northbound lane, a Suburban was turning left into the center. The highway has no left turn lane there.
Graves said he and his wife Kathy had been fishing on the Kenai River. They're from the San Francisco area and have been on the road for about 2 1/2 months. They were in a pickup and were hauling a big fifth-wheel trailer -- called that because it mounts onto a round plate affixed to the pickup bed, not a rear trailer hitch.
In an afternoon interview by the wreck, Graves said he had slowed to a near-stop when he suddenly saw the bus in his rearview mirror bearing down on him.
The bus smashed into his trailer, Graves said. The trailer shot up over the pickup, absorbing most of the force of the impact. He said he and his wife walked away from the wreck.
Patrick McPherson of Wasilla had taken his sister, visiting from Texas, to the wildlife center and was on the way out of the park when the bus hit Graves' pickup. McPherson was behind a white Mini, which was at the stop sign leading to the Seward Highway.
McPherson said he didn't see the bus hit the truck, but heard "a big thud" and the crunch of metal and glass. He looked up and the pickup was already wrecked and the bus was careering into oncoming traffic in the southbound lane. The bus clipped a truck with a camper in its bed, knocking off the camper, then collided head-on with an SUV with business decals all over it.
The SUV was thrown into the Mini, McPherson said.
McPherson said he leaped out to help. The driver of the SUV, Zollner, was pinned behind the wheel and bleeding, but the two passengers were able to get out — the woman in the passenger seat and the person in the back, who McPherson believed to be their daughter. He said he helped both get out. They sat by the side of the road. The daughter had cuts on her face.
Other people were helping too, McPherson said. Then emergency responders showed up and removed the driver, put him on a stretcher and hooked him to an IV. Zollner appeared to go into shock, McPherson said, and before long, medics covered his face with blankets.
The bus came to rest diagonally on the highway and its windshield was gone. Hours later, vehicles were still crashed beside the bus and a red-and-white debris pile from the camper was on the pavement. The other camper trailer was still piled on top of the Californians' pickup.
Jessica and Corey Cowgill watched the accident unfold as they drove toward Seward, where they planned to go hiking and fishing.
"It all happened all at once," Jessica Cowgill said. "We just saw the top of a trailer fly up in the air and then there was a big ol' smash."
"As soon as it happened we rushed over to help out," added Corey Cowgill.
Many others rushed out of their cars too, said Jessica.
"The injuries ranged from really scared to cuts and lacerations," she said. "A few nurses and EMTs who weren't on duty but were in traffic ran over and started helping people."
Troopers, Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue, and Anchorage police responded to the crash, troopers said.
Alaska Tour & Travel operates the Park Connection Motorcoach involved in the crash, said Steve Judd, the company's president.
The bus left Seward at 10:45 a.m. with 42 passengers onboard. It should have arrived in Anchorage at 1:30 p.m., according to a statement from Alaska Tour & Travel.
The Park Connection Motorcoach is a scheduled summer bus service that operates between Anchorage, Denali National Park, Talkeetna, Whittier and Seward, according to its website.
On Friday, the bus carried primarily independent travelers from hotels. Two of the passengers who sat in the front right seat of the bus were taken to the hospital after the crash for muscle soreness and minor cuts to their legs and hands, said the company's statement.
An ambulance took the driver to a hospital with minor injuries, the statement said.
Judd declined to comment on the witnesses' reports that the bus failed to stop. The company's statement said troopers were actively investigating the crash.
Between Mile 84 and 83, south of Girdwood, Ericka Moore was stretching her legs outside a Jeep mired in the traffic jam. The Jeep had only moved a mile in about 30 minutes, but she and her friend planned to stick it out until the road re-opened. They, like hundreds of others, were heading toward Salmonfest, the weekend Kenai Peninsula festival in Ninilchik.
Mallory Martin was also headed to Salmonfest, but the traffic jam, bright sun and warm air made a side-of-the-road pond too tempting to resist. Martin and two friends jumped into the water for a quick swim. They weren't too worried about arriving late at Salmonfest, Martin said — the band they were waiting to see was scheduled to play at 11 p.m.
William Chadwick, chief of Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said dipnets were strapped to at least one of the Kenai-bound vehicles involved in the crash.
The huge jam on the sole highway between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula led to a surge in calls to aircraft charter companies.
"We're pretty much booked up," said Hillary Gularte, an employee of Regal Air in Anchorage. "People are calling nonstop."
"It's flight attendants and families and everyone who's stuck out there that's got to be somewhere," Gularte said.
Alaska Dispatch News reporters Megan Edge, Tegan Hanlon, Rich Mauer, Jerzy Shedlock and Suzanna Caldwell contributed to this story.