Backhoe stuck in Ninilchik River

Effort to keep road open can't stay afloat

Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2002

A large excavator being used to repair flood damage along the Ninilchik River became mired in the river Sunday morning when its operator attempted to drive it through the floodwaters to the village side of Ninilchik Village Bridge.

As of Monday around 5 p.m., the machine was sitting on a small island in mid-channel being inspected by a mechanic as other equipment worked to repair flood damage and divert water from the stricken machine.

The machine was thought to belong to Quality Asphalt Paving of Anchorage, a construction company that has been repairing damaged roads and bridges, but ownership could not be confirmed. A spokesperson for QAP could not be reached as of late Monday afternoon.

According to witnesses, the Hitachi backhoe was too heavy to cross the bridge, so an effort was made to cross in the riverbed alongside. But the earthmover could not negotiate the crossing.

The river was swollen by heavy rains that fell the night before and continued into Sunday, causing the second episode of major flooding on the Kenai Peninsula in the last month.

Ninilchik Village resident Teague Vanek, a commercial fisher, said he was heading to church along with his wife, Betsy, and their two children Thomas, 5, and John, 2, at about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, but he couldn't get out of the village because the road had washed out on the village side of the bridge.

"It looked like they were going to fill it with rock and backfill," Vanek said Monday. "They were bringing the excavator across the river there. My wife and I and the kids went to see."

Vanek said he saw the operator try rocking the machine back and forth in an effort to get traction, but simply got more stuck.

"They were getting closer and closer to a deep spot on the upper side of the bridge," he said. "Suddenly, the back end set down in the water. There was a burst of steam out of the exhaust and that was it.

"It swamped the motor. It was over the cowling," he said.

Vanek said at one point the water actually reached the cab. The operator escaped his predicament without injury.

Attempts Sunday to extract the weighty machine were unsuccessful. Another excavator was brought in to help and crossed the river successfully. Vanek said they diverted the creek by opening the roadway in an effort, he believed, to lower the water level around the trapped vehicle.

"The only good thing about it was it was kind of fun to watch," Vanek said. "But I felt bad for them. It certainly was not what they planned for."

John McCombs, a commercial fisher during the summer and head custodian at Ninilchik School in the winter, said he saw the machine in the river but didn't see it get stuck.

He said the river, which drains higher elevations to the east, often doesn't subside for two or three days after a big rain.

"There is a certain drama we aren't a party to on the coast and that would be the inland weather," he said. "You think it is clearing up, but often times another front is coming in from the east and the rain continues. There is a lot of microclimate stuff, a lot of weather lines."

By Monday evening, he said, there were several more pieces of heavy equipment on the scene, and it looked to him as he drove by that they were going to try to restart the backhoe and drive it out of the river.

Stewart Seaberg, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Division of Fish and Game said the department is concerned and inspectors will be on scene today to assess the damage to the habitat.

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