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Valdez still cut off by avalanches as truck driver recounts being caught between slides

Laurel Andrews
DOT crews remove debris north of the avalanche near mile 16 of the Richardson Highway. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Ice and debris deposited on the Richardson Highway as flood water recedes. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Photos taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water gushes from the dammed Lowe River north of Valdez through an old Alaska railroad tunnel. Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance by city of Valdez officials. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in snow and debris following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Water draining from the dammed Lowe River following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Keystone Canyon, flooded following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created by avalanches that dammed the Lowe River over the weekend that is complicating the removal of debris from the roadway. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
The Richardson Highway covered in water and debris, as seen during a aerial reconnaissance of the roadway following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A lake created following avalanches that dammed the Lowe River north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Avalanches swept through Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon north of Valdez over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
Photo taken during an aerial reconnaissance of debris on the roadway and damming of Lowe River north of Valdez following a series of avalanches over the weekend. Jan. 27, 2014
Courtesy city of Valdez
A wall of snow lines the Richardson Highway as crews work to remove snow from the roadway. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team
Snow lines the Richardson highway as crews work to remove more than 40 feet of snow from the roadway following a series of avalanches in late January. Feb. 2 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation
Massive avalanches closed the Richardson Highway near Valdez over the weekend.
Courtesy Alyeska Pipeline Service Company security team
Crews terrace snow from the roadway to prevent snow from falling back onto the Richardson Highway. Feb. 1 2014
Courtesy Office of the Governor
Looking south, after flood waters have receded from a lake created after the Lowe River was dammed following a series of avalanches. Jan. 30 2014
Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation

On Friday morning, truck driver Kris Fagerberg found himself wedged between two avalanches on the Richardson Highway outside of the Southcentral Alaska community of Valdez. On Sunday, as the highway remained closed due to massive snow slides through Thompson Pass, Fagerberg said that he had no idea just how lucky he was until after he was discovered by the Alaska Department of Transportation and had safely gotten out of the area.

Fagerberg, a driver with Big State Logistics, was heading north from his home in Valdez toward Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside of Anchorage on Friday to make a fuel delivery when his truck was suddenly caught between two avalanches, he said from Glennallen -- 189 miles from Anchorage -- on Sunday.

At around 6:30 a.m. Friday, Fagerberg was traveling near the 39.5 mile mark of the Richardson Highway when the first avalanche fell right in front of his Freightliner truck, fully loaded with 10,000 gallons of fuel. 

He had looked back to see if anyone was behind him, and glanced forward again to see the avalanche sliding down about 150 yards ahead of him.

“I just looked back in time to see it come down the road,” Fagerberg said. The avalanche covered the roadway, burying the guard rail under between 10 and 15 feet of snow on the southbound side of the road, he said.

Fagerberg stopped his truck, got out and put cones around his vehicle. Then, as he waited, he saw a second slide come down along the road behind him, trapping him between the two avalanches.

Fagerberg waited around 90 minutes before he saw headlights approach from the north. A member of a DOT crew climbed over the avalanche and told Fagerberg “I needed to come with him because it was a dangerous area,” he said.

Fagerberg didn’t realize that he had dodged some of the largest avalanches that DOT crews say they have seen in the area.

“I had no idea what was going on,” he said. It wasn’t until after he had gotten out of Thompson Pass and heard how many avalanches had swept through the area that he realized how lucky he was.

He had passed through Keystone Canyon hours before a large avalanche covered the road with 50 to 70 feet of snow and debris. If he had gotten stuck in that slide, “I wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” he said.

Fagerberg has been driving semitrailers in Alaska for 10 years. He’s encountered slippery roads and close calls with wildlife, but “nothing like this,” he said.

His Freightliner was undamaged in the incident. On Saturday evening, DOT crews cleared a single lane through the road, freeing his vehicle. Fagerberg said Copper Valley Electric drove him the 139 mile round-trip to Thompson Pass to retrieve his vehicle. Now, Fagerberg is staying in Glennallen, and wasn’t sure on Sunday when he’d be able to head home to see his wife and children.

He has some deliveries to run on Monday and Tuesday, and will then return to Glennallen.

"After that I have no idea what I’m going to do," he said. "I’ll have to get a post office box or something.”

Fagerberg expressed deep gratitude for both DOT and Copper Valley Electric crew members, saying “they were just instrumental in making everything a whole lot easier for me.”

The series of avalanches, caused by warm weather and rain on snowpack, have closed the Richardson Highway between mileposts 12 and 64 since Friday morning. The Richardson is a mostly two-lane rural highway that runs 368 miles between Fairbanks in Alaska's Interior and Valdez, which sits on the northern shore of Prince William Sound. 

The road will remain closed until Tuesday, possibly longer, said Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeremy Woodrow. On Sunday, the area was still too unstable for crews to go in and being clearing the roadway, and DOT was still blasting the hillsides from helicopters to cause all unstable snow to fall down the hillside.

Once the area is deemed stable, crews will then begin removing snow from the road. As of Sunday, DOT was “kind of just in a holding pattern,” Woodrow said.

Three major avalanches slid down Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon, and several smaller ones were triggered on Friday and Saturday as well. The largest avalanche left a pile of debris 60 to 70 feet high, and between 900 to 1500 feet long -- and that’s just accounting for the area along the road, Woodrow noted.

Woodrow advised folks to look at the Alaska 511 website for road closure updates before hitting the road to or from Valdez.

Valdez is the terminus for the trans-Alaska pipeline, which snakes its way 800 miles through Alaska, beginning in Prudhoe Bay, on the state's northern coast. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. officials said Saturday the slides have not damaged the pipeline or halted operations.

Sheri Pierce, public information officer for city of Valdez, said that the city wasn’t experiencing any food or fuel shortages on Sunday. Both fuel and food comes into the city via barge, Pierce said, and the city’s one Safeway grocery store was set to get a barge delivery on both Sunday and Monday.

On Sunday, the city was monitoring water building up behind one of the avalanches in the Keystone Canyon. The nearby Alpine Woods subdivision, home to about 100 residents, was undergoing voluntary evacuations in case of possible flooding. “We’ve been going door-to-door,” Pierce said, letting folks know that there is a shelter available for residents and their pets. There was no mandatory evacuation as of Sunday afternoon.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews