Troopers explain delay after accident

Posted: Thursday, December 05, 2002

Poor weather conditions, the severity of the crash and limited Alaska State Trooper staffing combined to create a delay of nearly eight hours as motorists waited for the Seward Highway to reopen last month.

On Nov. 19, at about 12:30 p.m., a tractor-trailer truck collided with a van transporting prisoners to Seward, killing four of the prisoners and one guard about 20 miles north of Seward.

Four other people were injured including three inmates and another corrections officer. The driver of the truck was uninjured.

As troopers and emergency medical personnel attended to the victims, worked to clear the wreckage and conducted an investigation into the cause of the accident, the Seward Highway remained closed, not reopening until about 8 p.m.

"I understand the seriousness of the accident, but what I'm upset about is that the troopers sent someone by to tell us -- three times -- that the road would be open in about 30 minutes," said Sherrie Dahlen, of Kenai, Tuesday.

According to Dahlen, highway traffic flaggers from Foster Construction said troopers told them to tell the motorists the road would soon be opened.

"They could have secured the area and left one lane open. You can bet this wouldn't have happened in Anchorage," Dahlen said.

She and her husband, Dan, had gone to Seward that morning for a 15-minute errand. Then they saw ambulances rushing up the highway and reasoned that an accident had occurred.

"We went back into Seward and had lunch, figuring it might be an hour," said Sherrie Dahlen.

However, when the Dahlens attempted to head home, they were stopped on the highway and told the severe accident might take up to three hours to clear.

They decided to wait it out.

As time went on, they attempted to call home to let their child know they were all right, but found they were in an area where their cell phone would not work.

"Then I realized there was a house not too far away and I went there to borrow a phone. I called trooper headquarters in Seward and they said the road was open," Dahlen said.

"Some other people waiting in the car in front of us were told the same thing," she said.

"If I'd known it was going to be eight hours, I would have gone back to Seward."

She also said a bus was allowed to pass through, around the wreck.

Trooper Sgt. Barry Wilson said Tuesday that several factors combined to cause the long delay.

"The reality is, when we arrived on scene, the accident itself was very traumatic, the weather conditions were very bad and it would have been extremely hazardous to all the emergency personnel and those conducting the investigation to try to allow cars through," said Wilson, who is based at the troopers' E Detachment headquarters in Soldotna.

"We apologize for the delays people suffered through. I certainly feel for those people, but our concern for the victims and for the safety of the people investigating the accident outweighed our concern for (the motorists)," Wilson said.

Wilson said the site of the accident was icy and slush-covered and was on a narrow section of highway at a blind curve.

Responding to Dahlen's comment about the incident possibly being handled differently in Anchorage, Wilson said, "Anchorage would have 15 people doing the investigation ... we initially had three to do the investigation.

"If we were able to have more, we could investigate more quickly.

"Also, in Anchorage, they have the ability to reroute (traffic). We don't have that option," Wilson said.

Staffing levels also were a factor in deciding to escort a school bus filled with children through the area while other motorists were still being detained.

"Around 6:30 or 7 we did escort a school bus through to get the children to their homes," Wilson said.

"The children had already been held at school and it would have caused more delays if we had to stop our investigation to have people notify the parents of all those children that their kids were all right and weren't involved in an accident," he said.

"We run into problems both ways," said trooper spokesperson Greg Wilkinson explaining that troopers receive complaints if delayed motorists are not given any information. Or, if information is given, but the situation changes making the information incorrect, complaints also are voiced.

"I do apologize for the delays," Wilson said.

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