Freight trucker undaunted by avalanche zone

The state Department of Transportation announced Saturday that both the Seward and Sterling highways are now open. After nearly a week of closures due to heavy snow and avalanches, road crews have cleared the highways from Anchorage all the way to Seward and Homer.

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2000

With both air and road access cut off for days, Seward was running low on supplies, especially perishable food and medicines.

Wednesday afternoon, Glen Dye was working dispatch for Weaver Brothers trucking in Kenai when he got the call. Northern Air Cargo was airlifting in a shipment for Safeway, Inc. which owns several stores on the Kenai Peninsula, including Eagle Quality Center -- the largest grocery store in Seward.

The first plane load -- which landed at the Kenai Airport around 3:30 p.m. -- was to go directly to Seward by truck. Dye called in James Katelnikoff to make the run.

"He's one of my main drivers and it was his turn," the dispatcher said.

Katelnikoff said the assignment caught him off guard.

"I was kind of surprised," he said. "I didn't know the road was open at the time."

Katelnikoff was right about the road not being open. But the borough's Office of Emergency Management, through the Emergency Operations Center in Seward, got permission from the Alaska State Troopers to allow a supply truck down the Seward Highway.

Sgt. Brandon Anderson, of the Seward trooper post, said he accompanied Katelnikoff into town from Moose Pass, although unintentionally.

"We raised the avalanche gates for him," Anderson said. "I brought the driver in. We were both headed back to Seward at the same time. There was no other traffic on the road."

Katelnikoff said most of the trip was uneventful, until just inside the gates.

"The conditions got worse the closer we got," the veteran trucker said. "Once I got over that 12-mile hill, it was all rain."

Anderson said parts of the roadway hadn't been plowed during days of snowfall.

"It was deep snow, deep slush," said the trooper. "It was tough going. We made it, though."

Katelnikoff stopped along the way to talk with crews working to clear the road.

One of the graders he spoke to near the avalanche gates was heading away from Seward.

"He said his dispatch had told him to get off the road," Katelnikoff said.

Katelnikoff stopped to put on his last set of tire chains, then continued on, heeding the grader's warning to drive on the left side of the road.

The drive from Kenai to Seward took four-and-a-half hours instead of the normal two-and-a-half to three hours.

"It was a lot of time just chaining up," Katelnikoff said. "I didn't want to go speeding through there."

The last part of the trip was especially difficult, he said, because of unbroken darkness.

"We just didn't have the light to see what was going on," he said.

When Katelnikoff and his 40-foot trailer of food and supplies finally made it to the store, he was welcomed with relief by the store manager.

"They were really pleased," he said.

Katelnikoff said the company originally planned for him to empty the shipment, then turn around and go back for another truckload.

However, once he was done, Seward police advised him to wait out some of the weather and another possible avalanche.

"They told me to stay and wait until morning," he said.

"If I went out (earlier) that evening, I probably could have made it. (But) I wasn't real thrilled about going back."

During the night, another snowslide came down, blocking all road traffic out of Seward again. Katelnikoff had to wait until after the airport was opened to go home.

He returned unscathed to Kenai late Friday morning.

Before he left, he went to the store to talk to the manager.

"I asked him how long their milk lasted and they said until 2 o'clock (Thursday)," he said.

Anderson said the supplies were much appreciated.

"They were very important at that time," the trooper said. "Things have improved since we've got several flights in."

Although Katelnikoff's risky drive was important to people in Seward, he insists it was nothing special.

"It wasn't anything big," he said. "Just go in and get the job done. That's what I do. When something happens, you just do what you got to do."

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