ANCHORAGE — Alaska State Trooper Joseph Miller of Cooper Landing knows cellphone service can be sketchy along the remote Sterling Highway on the Kenai Peninsula. So when a 911 “hang up” call came in to dispatchers just before 1 a.m. Friday and was traced to a tower along the highway, he decided to look for someone in trouble in the cellphone dead zone.
His persistence paid off.
A disturbance in a snow bank near Mile 62 prompted Miller to turn his patrol car around. He stopped at 1:30 a.m., and from a deep ravine on the north side of the highway, heard cries for help.
At the bottom of the ravine, out of sight from the highway, driver Jason Wallace was injured and unable to move from his sport utility vehicle.
Miller gave Wallace a parka and called for an ambulance, sparing Wallace a long, cold night or worse.
“He said that if he didn’t see him, he probably would have been down there a very long time,” said Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the troopers.
Peters said it’s trooper policy to check on cellphone hang ups.
“If it sounds like something fishy is going on, they’ll send a trooper,” she said. “But when we don’t get an answer and we have a generic location, a trooper will be dispatched to go and see if they can find anything. Sometimes they do, sometime they don’t.
A dispatcher in Soldotna tried calling the cellphone a couple of times.
“It kept going to the man’s voice mail,” Peters said.
The dispatcher knew the cellphone call had “pinged” off a tower along the highway, which runs west out of Cooper Landing roughly parallel to the Kenai River.
Snow was falling early Friday morning and Miller, a three-year veteran, knew that someone could have gone off the road, Peters said.
The snow bank five miles west of the Kenai National Refuge Visitors Center caught his eye.
“The snow was shifted — messed up a little bit,” Peters said.
Miller turned around, stopped the car and got out. He saw no lights but heard Wallace yelling from 40 feet down. The officer slogged through the snow and found Wallace.
“It looks like he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, so when he went over into the ravine, he slammed into the dashboard area and he ended up injuring himself,” Peters said.
Wallace wasn’t trapped, Peters said, but could not move because of the leg injury and the angle of the SUV in the ravine.
“He estimated he had been there about 45 minutes and he was pretty cold,” Peters said. Wallace told Miller he had repeatedly called 911 without success and he had no way to signal passing cars.
An ambulance reached the scene 30 to 45 minutes later. A rescue crew used mountain climbing gear to move the injured man up to the roadway.
Wallace was treated at Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna for the leg injury and exposure. By Monday morning, he had been discharged. He was not listed in the Wasilla phone directory assistance.
Miller said Wallace’s SUV had clipped a state Department of Transportation guardrail but the damage was not obvious. The DOT plows the road.
“He said there’s a possibility that DOT might have noticed the guardrail or something,” Peters said. “Otherwise there was nothing to indicate someone was down there.”