Corporation pleads no contest in death of worker

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A contractor from Washington, on behalf of the engineering firm he owns, pleaded no contest Tuesday to criminally negligent homicide for the death of a worker buried by avalanche near Cordova two years ago.

Thom Fischer, president and owner of Whitewater Engineering Corp., had been charged personally with manslaughter after heavy-equipment operator Gary Stone was buried in an avalanche at the construction site for a hydroelectric project on April 15, 1999. Fischer's corporation was also charged with manslaughter. Whitewater is based in Bellingham, Wash.

As a result of a plea agreement, the state dropped the charge against Fischer in return for the corporation's no-contest plea to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide.

Prosecutor Brian Clark said he thinks this is only the second time in Alaska history that a corporation has been criminally convicted for the death of a worker. A corporation can't be sent to jail, but Whitewater could be fined up to $500,000 when it is sentenced on July 20, Clark said. The judge also can put the corporation on probation and order conditions to ensure employee safety, he said.

Stone was a 46-year-old father of five. His family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Whitewater, Cordova Electric Cooperative and other corporations connected to the project.

He had been working in a steep valley, excavating a stream bed for bridge footings when the load of snow released, burying the construction site and killing him.

The bridge site is in a steep-walled canyon, at the base of a 2,800-foot snow-filled slope. The site has been documented as an avalanche zone since at least 1948.

''I can't think of a more hazardous location to be working than this particular spot,'' avalanche expert Doug Fesler told Cordova police two days after the accident.

According to an Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Section report, Fischer was aware of the avalanche risk.

The day after Stone was killed, Fischer told the Cordova officer that ''the mountain avalanches every year, right in that chute,'' according to the state safety report.

Whitewater workers had talked to managers about their concern about avalanches all winter, and even on the morning Stone was killed, the report said. As snow continued to accumulate on the slope above, the worries increased. In January, the company hired Anchorage avalanche consultant Dave Hamre to assess the area.

Steve Standley, of the Alaska Occupational Safety and Health Section, said in his report it appeared Fischer didn't want to spend the money on avalanche control.

Fischer's lawyer, Jeff Feldman, said Tuesday that Whitewater did take safety precautions. It had an avalanche spotter, consulted with avalanche experts and sought a permit to reduce the snow load by setting off explosives, Feldman said. Part of the problem was that the job superintendent quit the project before the accident, Feldman said.

The U.S. Forest Service issued the permit for explosives a week before the accident but Whitewater didn't begin blasting until later.

Fischer was not in court Tuesday but entered the corporation's no-contest plea over the phone.

In addition to the suit filed by Stone's family, Fischer's company is being sued by the family of a Whitewater worker in Wrangell who was electrocuted a few weeks after Stone's death while working on a project in Southeast Alaska.

The Occupational Safety and Health Section is pursuing an administrative case against Whitewater because of Stone's death.

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