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Huge rock slide closes Whittier tunnel

  • Author: Julia O'Malley
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published April 12, 2009

A few pebble-sized rocks cartwheeled across the road ahead of Karla Brown as she emerged from a small tunnel on the way to the big Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier on Saturday night.

It was just after 8:30 p.m. and still light. Brown, who works at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on the Seward Highway, was distracted and in a hurry to get home. Then movement on the steep hillside caught her eye. She looked left from the driver's seat of her Ford Ranger and noticed thousands of smallish black rocks skittering downhill toward the road.

Brown kept driving, figuring it was a small slide. Rounding a turn, she glanced back in the rearview mirror as rocks the size of cantaloupes tumbled down.

"The whole thing happened in two seconds," she said.

As Brown disappeared into the tunnel, a mammoth rock slide roared down behind her, burying the road in rubble three stories deep in some places and studded with boulders the size of pickup trucks.

State highway officials said Sunday it will be midweek before the road can be reopened. The closure has stranded a number of people on either side of the tunnel.

Brown continued home, unaware of the magnitude of the rock slide she had just missed. She didn't think about it again until her phone rang. The voice on the other end was a friend in Portage calling to see if she was still alive.

"We figured out that by the time I got around the corner, the whole thing had come down," she said.

The tunnel will likely be closed until Wednesday, according to the state Department of Transportation. Some of the boulders are too big for the department's equipment, so a contractor will be hired to remove them, said Rick Feller, a department spokesman. There was no sign that any motorists were caught in the slide.

"This was probably prompted by the thawing cycle we're in right now," Feller said, and not by anyone's actions. Rocks continued to shift Sunday afternoon, and people on scene reported that the hillside was still unstable.

Railroad freight service wasn't affected by the slide and will continue, according to Tim Thompson, Alaska Railroad spokesman. The railroad doesn't run passenger cars to Whittier in the winter but could transport people out in the case of an emergency, he said.

Alaska Marine Highway ferry service has been canceled until Thursday, according to Larry Bussman at the Whittier terminal. That means unless there's an emergency, no one is getting in or out for three days.

Mark Earnest, city manager for Whittier, said the closure isn't a huge issue for townspeople.

"This is the type of thing that can happen and does happen once or twice a year," he said.

An ambulance crew had been outside the tunnel before the slide, and the railroad took the crew back into town. There was a second ambulance in Whittier for them to use, Earnest said. Mainly the slide was inconvenient for those who commute through the tunnel and those who were out of town for the Easter holiday.

"It does make you appreciate the ability to just drive to Anchorage," he said.

David Walker, who owns a bakery in Spenard, was stranded in Whittier on Sunday and had to call a locksmith to let one of his employees into his business. Sometimes the tunnel closes, he said, but not for days. He also called his legislators to see if something could be done to let passengers ride the train.

"Why can't they get us out of here?" he said. "I can't go anywhere."

Also inconvenienced was Terri Telkamp, a parole officer from Barrow who thought she was going to be in Whittier for a few hours Saturday to visit some client families before heading to Anchorage for a training session.

But when she tried to make the 10 p.m. trip through the tunnel, she found out she was stranded.

"I came from Barrow to get stuck in Whittier, where there's even less shopping," Telkamp said.

Last April, about 330 people made trips back and forth through the tunnel every day. At the height of the tourist season last July, 1,400 people made the trip each day.

Brown lie awake late into Saturday, thinking about how she could have been killed. Marilyn Williams, who works at the Portage Glacier Lodge, was the friend who called Brown to make sure she'd made it past the slide. All day Sunday, Williams was pouring coffee for DOT people working on clearing the road.

"All I could think about was how many people during the day move in and out of that tunnel," she said. "By the grace of God, huh? Nobody got hurt."

Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591. Reporter Don Hunter contributed to this story.

By JULIA O'MALLEY

jomalley@adn.com

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