Category Archives: public safety

‘Lucky’ on Lilac Lane — No injuries, deaths in gas explosions after earthquake

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The shell of a home at 1211 Lilac Lane stands beyond the complete wreckage of a home at 1213 Lilac that exploded from a natural gas leak caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake Sunday.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The shell of a home at 1211 Lilac Lane stands beyond the complete wreckage of a home at 1213 Lilac that exploded from a natural gas leak caused by the magnitude 7.1 earthquake Sunday.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

While the loss of four homes is nothing to be celebrated, residents and emergency responders to natural gas-fueled explosions on Lilac Lane in Kenai following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake early Sunday morning are calling the situation miraculous, since no one was hurt and everyone got out alive.

“The second house, when it exploded, it blew off its foundation, it blew its garage door across the street and then caught the home on fire,” said Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker. “It just happened that nobody was around there. We had crews within a pretty close distance of it. There was a tree out in front of the home that blocked a bunch of the debris from flying too far and injuring anybody. So we were lucky there was nobody in the area at the time of the explosion.”

Residents along Lilac Lane, Cook Inlet View Drive and Wells Way were evacuated early Sunday while emergency responders and utility companies worked around the clock to stop gas leaks in the area. The neighborhood parallels the Kenai Spur Highway on the Cook Inlet bluff side, behind Doyle’s Fuel Service, across the highway from Wildwood Correctional Facility.

Misty Schoendaller lives at 1215 Lilac. She was drifting off to sleep when the earthquake hit at 1:30 a.m. She got dressed, grabbed her cellphone and headed outside.

“About the time I got out the door the house next to mine exploded and knocked me back. And when the explosion happened it was really weird because it was like coming out from the kitchen area, and the front of the house kind of came out and then went back in, and black smoke everywhere. I mean, it was bad. It was real bad,” Schoendaller said.

She called 911 and ran to next door to 1213 to see if she could help. Vinnie Calderon was in the front yard, shouting for his family to get outside. Miraculously, neither he, his fiancée nor the two kids in the house were injured in the explosion.

This home at 1211 Lilac was one of four destroyed by natural gas explosions and fires Sunday following the earthquake. Janice Gottschalk lived there with her fiancé, brother and three kids.

This home at 1211 Lilac was one of four destroyed by natural gas explosions and fires Sunday following the earthquake. Janice Gottschalk lived there with her fiancé, brother and three kids.

Janice Gottschalk lives with her fiancé, brother and three kids at 1211 Lilac, to the left of Calderon.

“About 1:30 a.m. the earthquake hit, and probably about 1:40, 1:45 a.m. I heard my neighbor’s house blow up,” she said. “The gas blew off the roof. They thankfully made it out. And then we were all told probably about five minutes later to evacuate our house, as well,” she said.

Kenai police officers arrived within minutes of the explosion, Schoendaller said.

“There were things on fire outside of the house on the ground and the Kenai police were trying to extinguish it with extinguishers, and it just kept coming back,” she said.

The neighbors piled into an apartment across the street as the Kenai Fire Department worked on Calderon’s house, about a dozen people anxiously waiting for whatever might come next.

By 3 a.m., emergency personnel noticed a strong smell of gas in the area and told neighborhood residents they had to evacuate.

When she left Lilac, Schoendaller expected to come back to her home.

“I didn’t think anything was going to happen with my house because the fire department was here and it looked like they were going to be able to contain it, so nobody thought they were going to lose their homes except that one (that exploded),” she said.

Displaced

An emergency shelter was set up at the Kenai National Guard Armory. Sgt. 1st Class Albert Burns got the phone call from the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management.

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Cooper Landing highway reroute driving concern — Locals question expense, effects to businesses

Graphic courtesy of ADOT

Graphic courtesy of ADOT

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporte

Six cars drove past Wildman’s convenience store on the Sterling Highway in about two minutes on a recent weekend afternoon. Two of them pulled in. Wildman’s is one of the few businesses in Cooper Landing that stays open in the winter, much less on a Sunday.

General manager Heather Harrison says the business makes most of its money off the crowds of fishermen, tourists and commuters that clog the highway in the summer. But winter business is important, too.

“We stay open all year, we’re one of the very few places that stay open all year, and a lot of that is due to the traffic we’re able to pull in off the highway,” she said. “I do feel like people anticipate us coming up now at this point that we are one of the only places open and if they have to go to the bathroom, this is where they’re going to want to do it.”

That, and the fact that she’s on the Cooper Landing planning advisory committee, has her keeping an eye of the Alaska Department of Transportation’s plans to reroute the Sterling Highway through town. On Dec. 11, DOT announced its preferred route, building 5.5 miles of new highway north of town, and rejoining the existing Sterling Highway at Mile 51.5 between Cooper Creek and Gwin’s Lodge.

It’s the most-expensive alternative of the four DOT considered, and involves the least mileage of new road.

“I find the final plan to be a little surprising that they are bringing it out so close to town. It’s not going to bypass nearly as much as people thought,” Harrison said.

That’s both good news and bad to Harrison. First, she’s been worried what the bypass would do to winter business.

“Would I take the bypass as a traveler going to Anchorage to get around all the S curves, away from the road, yeah, I would. It’s safer, it’s faster,” she said.

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Cooper Landing gets highway OK — ADOT identifies preferred north route for bypass

Graphic courtesy of ADOT

Graphic courtesy of ADOT

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

A trip through Cooper Landing is like driving back in time. Other than some repaving and filled potholes, the road hasn’t been upgraded since the Sterling Highway was completed in 1950, and it shows. Tight S curves with little visibility cling to hillsides and wind just above Kenai Lake and the Kenai River. Narrow lanes crowd big trucks, and the shoulders could be measured with rulers, not tape measures.

“Sometimes you can see the fog line on the outside of the lane that’s actually painted on gravel,” said Kelly Petersen, project manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Though the road hasn’t been upgraded in 65 years, traffic and its associated problems continue to increase. From 2000 to 2009, ADOT recorded 303 crashes between Mileposts 45 and 60, with 153 in the winter and 150 in the summer.

“Anyone that’s driven through this piece of highway, you know immediately when you’re at Milepost 45 because there’s no clear zones, there’s no shoulder, you’re more white-knuckled. And this is the place that everybody wants to be for the world-class experience of fishing,” Petersen said.

Yet a fix has been a long time coming. ADOT started working on an Environmental Impact Statement for a highway upgrade in the early 1980s, but for a longer stretch of the road — from Milepost 37 east of Cooper Landing, closer to the junction with the Seward Highway, to Milepost 60, west of the intersection with Skilak Lake Road. The project got split in two, with an upgrade of miles 37 to 45 being completed in 2001. The rest has been on the to-do list for so long that the original EIS has become the oldest environmental document for a highway project in the country.

But while the need for a safer road has been obvious, a solution has not.

“This project is in a unique place because it’s right next to Kenai Lake and the Kenai River, it’s a critical area with great salmon runs that are world famous. So, working between that and fairly steep terrain. And then, of course, we’ve got a wilderness area plus multiple trailheads, and there’s also cultural sites — archaeological and otherwise. So it’s definitely a challenging place to build,” said Shannon McCarthy, ADOT spokesperson.

Any one of those challenges can be a significant hurdle to a highway project. And in this case, the challenges kept coming.

“There’s just been a lot of changes in the corridor, both in traffic, the formation of (the Kenai River Special Management Area), the identification of selection properties under (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act). The whole issue is, this is a complex piece,” Petersen said.

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Plane crash claims 2 lives — Cessna 180 clips trees, crashes off South Cohoe Loop in Kasilof

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Above, an Alaska State Trooper, the first responder on the scene, looks for survivors in the wreckage of a Cessna 180 that crashed in Kasilof on Saturday. Two people were aboard. There were no survivors. Below, Central Emergency Services firefighters extinguish the fire sparked by the crash at about 8:11 p.m.

Photos by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Above, an Alaska State Trooper, the first responder on the scene, looks for survivors in the wreckage of a Cessna 180 that crashed in Kasilof on Saturday. Two people were aboard. There were no survivors. Below, Central Emergency Services firefighters extinguish the fire sparked by the crash at about 8:11 p.m.

Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Investigators are trying to discover the cause of a plane crash Saturday night in Kasilof that killed two local men.

Pilot Brian Nolan, 69, and 57-year-old Peter Lahndt, both of Kasilof, died when Nolan’s Cessna 180 crashed into a stand of trees about 150 feet from Cohoe Loop Road, just inland from the bluff over Cook Inlet near the mouth of the Kasilof River. The plane immediately burst into flames. The crash was not survivable, according to an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

The plane went down around 8:11 p.m. Saturday at Mile 3.2 South Cohoe Loop Road, near Powder Keg Avenue. Dan Brown lives across the street and a little to the south of the crash site. He heard the plane throttle up, then crash a second or so later.

“Right after I heard him gun it I heard the impact on the ground. And so I knew it had crashed. It was just really, really quick. In fact at that time I was on the telephone. I said, ‘A plane just crashed I gotta go,’” Brown said.

Brown and two of his daughters jumped in his car and were at the crash site within about two minutes, where they could already see smoke rising from the trees.

“When I got there you could tell where the plane had clipped some spruce trees and where it had to have flipped over because it went into the round tail first from the direction is was coming from. So it hit trees, broke the tops of the trees off and then hit going backwards,” Brown said.

The plane was already on fire and the heat was too intense for Brown to get up to the wreckage.

“I couldn’t get close enough to it. I felt real bad about it (that) I couldn’t get in there. I couldn’t hear anything from them, there was no noise from anybody in the plane. I went around both sides of it trying to get into it and I couldn’t, it was too hot,” he said.

Within about 45 seconds the flames got even more intense.

plane crash four“That fuel really got going and then the whole thing was engulfed in flames and you couldn’t be within about 20 feet of it,” Brown said.

He made about a 50-foot circle around the plane, looking to see if anyone had been thrown from the wreckage. By that time the plane’s tires burst into flames, and Brown started hearing explosions.

“I’m pretty sure they had quite a bit of ammunition on board. It sounded like a war down there,” he said.

He told his daughters to get back to the road while he made another wider loop around the plane, looking for survivors. As he did something hit him in the leg. It was smoldering and left a black mark, but didn’t penetrate the skin. Brown decided he’d better get back to the road, too.

Central Emergency Services and Alaska State Troopers from Soldotna responded to several reports of the downed plane and fire. Traffic on South Cohoe Loop was restricted until about 10:30 p.m. CES had the fire extinguished by about 8:50 p.m.

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Data-driven collisions — Fish and Game seeing changing trends in wildlife-vehicle accidents

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A bull moose draws a crowd as it prepares to cross the road.

File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A bull moose draws a crowd as it prepares to cross the road.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Tourists and Alaskans alike often enjoy seeing moose, but never so up close that one of the 1,200-pound animals is crashing through their windshield. Yet that inevitably happens every year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“To be exact, we had 154 moose that were hit, killed and reported on the Kenai Peninsula from July 1, 2014, to June 10, 2015,” said Larry Lewis, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.

Those numbers are actually trending downward when compared against the averages for the past 28 years, Lewis said, which is how long records of moose-vehicle collisions have been kept by Fish and Game, compiled from their own reports as well as from Alaska State Troopers, Kenai and Soldotna police and the Alaska Railroad, since moose stepping onto railroad tracks are occasionally hit by trains.

“When you look at the data from 1985 to ’86 up to 2013, the mean number of moose hit comes out to about 248 animals, and 154 is obviously well below that,” Lewis said.

While the number of moose killed has started to come down in recent years, Lewis said that the number of moose that run off into the woods after being hit is trending upward.

“I’m not sure if it’s lighter vehicles now versus the old tankers, or if it has something to do with how people are driving, but last regulatory year we had reports of 79 hit and not recovered. We only started keeping track of this since 2000, but just since that time the average is 73,” he said.

As high as both these numbers are — 233 combined — Lewis said that the numbers still don’t paint a clear picture of how many moose are actually hit on the peninsula.

“These are just the ones we know about. By law, collisions with moose are supposed to be reported, but every year some are found dead on the roadside,” he said.

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Accidents slow holiday start

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Traffic headed back to Anchorage from the Kenai Peninsula after the July Fourth weekend was backed up as far as Girdwood on Sunday night.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Traffic headed back to Anchorage from the Kenai Peninsula after the July Fourth weekend was backed up as far as Girdwood on Sunday night.

Staff report

The Kenai Peninsula lived up to its title as Alaska’s playground over the July Fourth weekend, with thousands of visitors making the trip south for the Mount Marathon race in Seward, salmon fishing in Kenai, halibut fishing in Homer or various other activities. Whatever their destination, they all had to make it through the drive along the Seward Highway, which proved to be a challenge with three major incidents slowing or completely halting traffic.

The first and most serious was a collision involving a motorcycle and an Alaska State Trooper vehicle Friday evening that left a 58-year-old Anchorage man dead and the highway closed for six hours.

Michael Kemper was seen speeding on a motorcycle around 7 p.m. Friday, heading south in the highway’s safety corridor at Mile 93. Troopers say Kemper ignored the signal to pull over and instead rode on the shoulder of the highway, between the guardrail and other traffic. The motorcycle collided with the back of a Chevy Suburban that had pulled over to yield to the trooper. That crash landed Kemper back in traffic, where the trooper’s vehicle hit him.

Kemper was wearing a helmet but was pronounced dead at the scene. His body was taken to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy. Trooper spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said that toxicology tests are being performed to determine whether drugs or alcohol were factors in the collision.

The name of the trooper involved was initially withheld citing trooper policy when troopers are involved in an on-duty shooting, but was released Sunday. It was Trooper Jeffrey F. Simpson, a veteran of nearly 13 years with the force, based in Girdwood with the Alaska Bureau of Highway Patrol since 2011. Ipsen said the incident is the first of its kind in the agency’s history.

The highway was reopened around 1 a.m. Saturday.

It was closed again Saturday night for two separate incidents. At about 7:40 p.m. a plane made an emergency landing near Potter Marsh just outside Anchorage. The Cessna, with three people aboard, apparently had a fuel problem. According to National Transportation Safety Board officials, no injuries were reported, though the plane clipped a car during the landing. The highway was closed for about 20 minutes while Anchorage police and fire crews responded and the plane was removed.

And at about 8 p.m., a Dodge pickup truck towing a boat and trailer drove off the highway into the swamp near Mile 89.5. Troopers say that 66-year-old Dana Lynn Dobson, of Wasilla, had been wearing his seat belt and was treated by medics at the scene. No other vehicles were involved in the incident. Damage to the truck was estimated at about $5,000, with an additional $2,000 in damage to the trailer. Dobson was cited for not carrying current proof of insurance and released at the scene.

The highway was sporadically closed for more than two hours as the pickup and trailer were recovered.

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Bear safety in mind — Return of light, warmth, means return of bruins

Redoubt Reporter file photo. The return of spring means the return of bears, and the need to be particularly bear aware, as a resident of Kasilof discovered last week after her livestock enclosure was attached.

Redoubt Reporter file photo by Joseph Robertia. The return of spring means the return of bears, and the need to be particularly bear aware, as a resident of Kasilof discovered last week after her livestock enclosure was attached.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Despite the mild winter and warm, dry spring, area bears have been slow to show themselves following their long slumber.

“It’s been pretty quiet. Just a few reports here and there, so some are out, but it’d be a stretch to say they’re all out,” said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

As the bears do become active, they’ll begin to forage for food, according to Selinger.

“They’ll mill about for winter-killed moose and eat vegetation, and unfortunately some of the ones that have been around for a few years know to look where humans live to find food,” he said.

This proved true for Kasilof resident Danielle Marey, who recently lost some livestock to what she believes could only have been a bear. On March 31, she took her kids to school and spent the day in town.

“When I got back home I noticed the 10-by-5 shelter we had built for our pigs had been ripped down,” she said.

The pigs were small, 40-pounders Marey had recently purchased from Kenai Feed and Supply to raise for butchering in fall.

“They came in a little earlier this year than usual, so we didn’t have an electric fence up yet, but we were housing them in a pen we made out of 4-foot-tall panels, and that was inside my garden, which has an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence completely surrounding it, except for one small gap,” she said.

Whatever creature had gotten to her pigs was apparently smart enough to find the break, and was large enough to climb or jump over the panel fence.

“The ground was frozen so there were no tracks, but all of the wounds to the pigs were on their backs, near the neck, and looked like the type of injuries claws would make. And whatever did it had to be strong enough to rip the shelter apart,” she said.

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