Company and owner arraigned on manslaughter charges in employee's death

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A Washington engineering company and its owner were arraigned Wednesday in Superior Court on manslaughter charges in the death of an employee killed in an avalanche near Cordova.

Whitewater Engineering of Bellingham, Wash., and company owner Thom Fischer are each charged in the death of Gary Stone, 46, killed on April 15, 1999, when a massive load of snow slid down a slope seven miles northeast of Cordova.

Stone, who was working on a hydroelectric project being constructed by Whitewater, was operating a backhoe in a steep canyon at the time.

The company had hired an avalanche forecaster who warned of the danger in a letter to the company. And about two weeks before the accident occurred, Whitewater had applied to the Forest Service for a permit to use aerial explosives to control avalanches in the work zone, according to district ranger Cal Baker. The permit was issued but explosives were never used, he said.

Jeff Feldman, the company's lawyer, said Wednesday that Whitewater is innocent.

''The company believes that it took all reasonable steps to address the avalanche risk...,'' he said.

Assistant Attorney General Helen Valkavich said companies and individuals representing them are responsible for maintaining a safe work site.

If convicted, the company could be fined up to a half-million dollars and the owner sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. No trial date was set.

In 1996, Houston Contracting Co. was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the asphyxiation death of a welder at Prudhoe Bay in 1994. It was the first time in Alaska a company was found guilty in a criminal homicide case.

The state had sought a manslaughter conviction, but the Superior Court jury convicted the company on the lesser charge and acquitted the project manager.

Damon Monzingo, 22, of Fairbanks, died from a buildup of argon gas.

Prosecutors said no one was posted at the end of the pipe to make sure the welder was all right and the gas had not been blown out of the pipe before he crawled into it to begin work.

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