2 missing in Alaska landslide: Sitka Landslide

Published: August 20, 2015

2 missing in Alaska landslide: Sitka Landslide, Crews recovered one body days after an Alaskan landslide, but two men remain missing in the Sitka area as authorities work to stabilize the slide area and continue the search.

Officials have referred to the search as a “recovery mission,” and it has been made more difficult by the danger involved with sending crews into the area that was overtaken by mud and debris. The Alaska Dispatch News said crews cleared about 25 yards of the mudslide – described as having the consistency of pudding – on Wednesday, but couldn’t provide an estimate of its total size.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson for the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told the paper that the body recovered at the site Wednesday night has not yet been identified.

@JuneauEmpire @adndotcom 2 of the newest/priciest homes obliterated after slide. 3 souls still unaccounted for. 12pm pic.twitter.com/woBCeaairA

— Southeast_Alaskan (@AK12th) August 18, 2015

Cloud cover over the mountain also slowed the effort by preventing an aerial view of the slide, which authorities believe killed city building inspector William Stortz, 62, and brothers Elmer and Ulises Diaz, 26 and 25. The brothers were working on the home when the landslide hit.

Workers tried using heavy equipment Wednesday to divert stream water washing over the debris, which geologists were reviewing to see how responders can safely begin searching for the missing men, officials said.

Zidek said crews searched around the perimeters, but the bulk of the debris pile remained too unstable to tackle. The mud that is covering the site has the consistency of pudding, he said.

“We don’t want to put additional people in harm’s way and compound the problem,” he said.

City spokesman Ken Fate said there is no time-frame for fully clearing the site, which he called a huge undertaking. Also, the water coursing through the debris pile is flowing through the neighborhood and overwhelming the city sewer system, he said.

Gov. Bill Walker toured the area Wednesday to see the damage from six landslides that crashed into different parts of the city Tuesday after 2 1/2 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. The picturesque fishing community, tucked between snowcapped mountains and the Pacific Ocean, is nestled in rain forest terrain on the west coast of Baranof Island that is characterized by heavy rains year-round.

Homes in town have been flooded, and there were reports of people not being able to reach their houses or leave their neighborhood, Zidek said.

@JuneauEmpire @adndotcom Some of the priciest homes in Sitka are swept away by landslides.Sitka declares St.of Emerg pic.twitter.com/EMALtNZZU5

— Southeast_Alaskan (@AK12th) August 18, 2015

Local resident Ramon Hernandez said the Diaz brothers are partners with him in Four Points Painting, a painting and drywall contractor in Sitka. The brothers are longtime residents who love playing basketball and are very close to each other, Hernandez said. The brothers’ parents also live in Sitka.

Hernandez said he is holding out hope that he will get a phone call that the brothers are alive.

“There’s been plenty of phone calls with bad news,” he said. “I think it’s fair for me to have a phone call with good news now.”

Residents of about 20 homes near the construction site and at a downslope neighborhood were evacuated. Residents in the lower neighborhood were allowed to retrieve belongings for 30 minutes on Wednesday, according to Fate.

The city of more than 9,000 people declared a state of emergency. Sitka, almost 600 miles southeast of Anchorage, is a popular cruise ship destination that features such landmarks as Mount Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano that rises 3,200 feet and somewhat resembles Japan’s Mount Fuji.

Heavy rain was blamed for a major landslide in September near the town that wiped out hundreds of thousands of dollars in watershed-restoration projects. The rain also damaged a footbridge and trails, including one that had been repaired after flooding in January 2014.

A year earlier, two people at a U.S. Forest Service cabin near Sitka escaped moments before part of a mountain slid down.


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