Second body recovered from slide, crews hone in on the third

Search crews have recovered two bodies from the Kramer Avenue landslide in Sitka. One man remains missing but search dogs have alerted to a third location on the south side of the slide, where work focused Thursday afternoon. Officials hoped to recover all three bodies before heavy rain predicted Friday.

Download Audio

Recovery crews halt work while a trained cadaver dog scents the site where the body of 62-year-old William Stortz is thought to be located. A dog previously alerted at the location of the green stake in the center of the image. (KCAW photo, Robert Woolsey)
Recovery crews halt work while a trained cadaver dog scents the site where the body of 62-year-old William Stortz is thought to be located. A dog previously alerted at the location of the green stake in the center of the image. (KCAW photo, Robert Woolsey)

Search crews were finally able to get to work in earnest late Wednesday and Thursday, after a day in which officials kept work on the site to a minimum out of fear of more landslides.

Crews found the first body at about 7:15 p.m. Wednesday evening, and recovered the second body just before 1 p.m. Thursday, both on the north side of the slide. Both bodies were first found by dogs with the Juneau-based search team SEADOGS.

By Thursday afternoon, dogs had identified a third site, where crews hoped to find the body of 62-year-old William Stortz, Sitka’s building official. Stortz was inspecting drainage in the subdivision at the time of the landslide with two other men who managed to escape. Stortz and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, ages 26 and 25, had been missing since the Tuesday morning slide.

Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell was at the Kramer Avenue site for most of the day Wednesday. She said it was a relief to the families to have some closure.

“Obviously it’s good to know what’s happened to your loved one, and we can move on from hoping and wishing to just being able to grieve.”

The area around Kramer Avenue remains unstable. The slide moved downhill another 2 feet overnight. The city has posted firefighters at each end of the slide with airhorns, to signal an evacuation if any additional movement is detected. But McConnell said crews were just happy to be able to work.

“It’s a huge relief, and I know so many of the volunteers and people working have been frustrated because they couldn’t do anything initially, so it’s just been a relief to be able to get in there and get to work and get going.”

Sunshine broke through for much of the day, Wednesday. As the clouds lifted it was possible to see the path of the landslide above Kramer Avenue, where it cut a swath down the hillside. A team of geologists brought in to assess the slide estimated that it started about 1400 feet up Harbor Mountain, or about 1000 feet above Kramer Avenue, where it wiped out one home and damaged another.

Searchers hoped to recover all three bodies before more rain predicted for Friday. The National Weather Service is predicting two to three inches of rain Friday night, and gusty winds. But meteorologist Joel Curtis said this storm will be less intense, with a limited risk of more slides.

“What’s different about this event is that it’s going to be spread out over much more time than the event that caused our mudslides and landslides around here.”

Officials have identified at least six landslides around Sitka caused by Tuesday’s heavy rains, including slides on the Blue Lake Road that are blocking access to Sitka’s main hydroelectric dam; and washouts on the Green Lake Road, on the way to the city’s other dam.