As crews continue to cautiously work through debris searching for the three victims of Tuesday’s deadly landslide in Sitka, it’s clear that the event could have been much worse. There are many homes below and to either side of the slide, and there were two other people directly in its path who escaped.
It’s not raining at the moment in Sitka, at least not down here close to sea level. But the amount water running through the Kramer Avenue slide suggests that the heavy clouds overhead are again saturating the slopes of Harbor Mountain.
City engineer David Longtin is working with some tree fallers and a track hoe to divert water away from the recovery area.
“It’s going to start raining again. And when it does start raining we don’t want more water to go in there. We want it to go in the ditch where it should be.”
Longtin has been here almost continuously since the hillside above Kramer broke loose Tuesday morning at 9:30. He had accompanied city building official William Stortz to the site to inspect the drainage in this brand-new subdivision after the extraordinarily heavy rainfall earlier in the day.
Longtin and Stortz were standing in the drive complimenting the work of a third man, excavator Jerome Mahoskey, when the slide started.
“We heard a rumbling. It didn’t immediately dawn on us what it was. We looked at each other with puzzled expressions, and then we looked up the hill and saw these 200-foot trees falling like dominoes, boom-boom-boom, one after another.”
Although the slide was still far up the mountain, Longtin says it was moving fast. The subdivision was tucked into a small ravine, and it was clear that the slide could turn and head their way.
That’s when they started running.
“Of the three of us, William was the farthest uphill, but still within five feet of us. Jerome was next to me as we started sprinting down the hill. Out of the corner of my eye I saw William behind me with a concerned look on his face, and we just started running. I was aware of Jerome being next to me the whole time we were running — and not aware of William. I think I would have been aware of him, even though he was behind us. He’s 61 or 62 years old but very fit, very nimble. So we ran down the access road, got into Kramer. Started running down Kramer, and I decided to run up onto this 30-foot embankment — this pile of gravel — to try and stay above it all. Jerome decided to stay out on the road. You can see where the slide stops. Jerome was able to run past here before the slide got here. And from the time we started running until the time we got up here it was probably no more than 10 or 12 seconds — no more than that. And no sign of William.”
The search is still underway for Stortz’s body, and those of two other victims, brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, who were working in a house in the path of the slide.
Longtin doesn’t talk about whether or not he is lucky. He — and many other city workers and volunteers — are just too busy addressing the aftermath. But he brings an engineer’s perspective to the event — and how he survived it. Once the slide reached Kramer Avenue it was a mass of mud and interlocking trees — and it was slowing down.
“It was a solid, but it was acting like a liquid. It was flowing. Imagine mayonnaise. Maybe not quite that viscous. I was running as fast as I could downhill. It wasn’t nipping at our heels, but it wasn’t too far behind, either.”
The slide came to a halt about 100 feet above where it is now. Longtin says that there was no sign of William Stortz. He and Mahoskey went back up the slope to try and find Mahoskey’s truck, which had his two dogs inside. The slide pushed downhill twice more — about 50 feet each time. Then Longtin called 9-1-1 and began the work that he has been doing since.
Having been in harm’s way, this engineer is not too anxious about remaining there.
“You know there was a lot of potential energy up there before it released. But now it’s been released and I think it’s kind of reached an equilibrium more or less. I’m keeping my eye on it — don’t get me wrong — but I don’t feel that nervous being here.”