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Kenai

New questions as investigation continues into death of boy on Sterling Highway when rock fell from truck

The Alaska Department of Transportation has joined the investigation into a construction-area accident that killed an 8-year-old boy Thursday on the Sterling Highway.

Troopers say the boy was struck by a "volleyball-sized" rock that fell from a rock truck traveling in the opposite direction on the highway between Sterling and Cooper Landing. That portion of the highway is under construction as part of a three-year, $54 million widening and rehabilitation effort.

California-based Granite Construction, the contractor on the project, said it is cooperating with the investigation.

But it was not clear Friday who owned and operated the truck. Troopers say they have tentatively identified the vehicle but have released no details about the owner, operator or driver.

"While the incident occurred within our project site, we are presently unaware that any of our equipment or personnel were involved," Granite wrote in a statement to media.

Neither the company nor a transportation department spokeswoman responded to follow-up questions, including whether the vehicle was operated by a subcontractor or was unrelated to the state highway project.

The boy, Noah Schwebach of Eagle River, was one of five people traveling in a northbound Volkswagen GTI hatchback at the time of the accident. The rock pierced the windshield, striking Schwebach in the middle rear seat, according to a trooper dispatch posted online.

Granite halted operations in the construction zone following the accident.

"The investigation is ongoing to determine the totality of the circumstances, to include what, if anything, the suspected vehicle was hauling at the time," troopers wrote Friday.

Granite spokeswoman Jacqueline Fourchy did not respond to phone calls but emailed a statement.

"We are deeply saddened by yesterday's tragic incident on the Sterling Highway. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Schwebach family," the statement said, in part. "We are fully cooperating and assisting with the investigation. Out of respect for the family, we have voluntarily suspended night shift work on the roadway until Saturday night."

Ed Martin Jr., a retired heavy-equipment operator and part owner of a Cooper Landing business, said he has been monitoring the nearby Sterling Highway project.

Martin said he texted transportation department engineer Shaun Combs on May 19 to report the presence of a piece of guard rail that Martin believes fell off a truck working on the state project.

"At Monday's safety meeting the loss of that guardrail from a load should be a topic of conversation don't you think?" Martin wrote, according to a photo of the text that he shared with the Daily News.

Combs referred questions about that earlier complaint to DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy, who did not immediately respond Friday to related questions.

State law requires that truckloads of gravel or rocks must be secured to prevent "dropping, shifting, leaking or escaping."

Martin said he has subcontracted for Granite Construction, describing the company as safety-oriented. He said a rock doesn't have to fall out of a loaded truck to strike another vehicle — rocks on the road can be thrown when a truck drives over them, or can become dislodged from between the tires of a truck, he said.

McCarthy wrote that DOT staffers are saddened and shocked by the tragedy and are working to provide information to state troopers. State Commercial Vehicle Enforcement officials are working with troopers in the investigation.

The family of Schwebach could not be reached for comment.

Troopers urged drivers on the Peninsula to be cautious on the Seward and Sterling highways this weekend.

"Traffic is expected to be exceedingly heavy due to the Kenai River Dipnet Fishery, the Alaskaman Triathlon and the various construction zones," troopers wrote. "Motorists should mind their speed, pay attention to their following distance, drive with headlights on, and obey traffic signs."

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