Tragedy on Stevens Pass: Unsafe highway kept open
State Department of Transportation officials kept Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass open for much of the week before Christmas despite knowing snow-heavy trees were snapping onto the road. Before the highway was shut, trees had fallen on two cars in separate accidents, killing two and injuring nine.
Seattle Times staff reporter
After a grand fir about 125 feet tall snapped east of Stevens Pass and fell onto a Bothell family’s SUV on Dec. 21, officials at the state transportation department spoke of the accident as a rare and tragic occurrence that would have been hard to foresee.
Tragic because the tree killed parents Tim Owen, 58, and Cheryl Reed Owen, 56, as they drove with their family on Highway 2 to a holiday getaway in Leavenworth. Their two daughters and son-in-law, all in their 20s, were nearly crushed to death as well. Only their son walked away from the accident with minor injuries.
Rare because, on average, a fatal falling-tree accident happens in the state only once per year, if that often. And, as far as transportation-department supervisors could remember, falling trees had never before posed a danger great enough for them to close Stevens Pass.
But recently released records show the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had been advised the day before the Dec. 21 accident that trees were falling along Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass. Moreover, transportation officials initially refused to close the same stretch of highway the day after the accident, despite being asked repeatedly to do so by the State Patrol.
The same afternoon the department declined to shut the highway, a second car from the Seattle area — this one with five people — was struck by a falling tree about a mile from where the grand fir crashed down on the Owen vehicle the day before.
“That collision was just a fraction of a second from being another fatal accident,” said Sgt. Steve Morehead of the State Patrol, who responded to the crash scene.
In the second accident, driver Binay Pathak, 37, suffered serious neck injuries but is recovering and has returned to his job as a software engineer. His pregnant wife and their relatives from New Jersey were treated for minor injuries.
The Owen family survivors continue to struggle with debilitating injuries. More than three months after the accident, Jessica Owen and her brother-in-law Steven Mayer are still in a Northgate-area nursing facility, where Jaime Owen Mayer was just released to go home Friday. All three are wondering when they will walk again on their own, and whether the collision could have been prevented.
WSDOT maintenance supervisors responsible for closing the Stevens Pass Highway have declined to speak about the details of either accident and why they did not close the highway sooner, citing “possible pending litigation.”
Early in the week before Christmas, hundreds of trees large and small had snapped under the weight of heavy, wet snow and fallen onto roadways around Western Washington, prompting the state transportation department and local agencies to close routes around Mount Baker, Hood Canal and Wenatchee.
While conditions at Mount Baker and Hood Canal improved enough that roads could be reopened later in the week, falling-tree dangers around Highway 2 near Lake Wenatchee were getting worse.
On Dec. 20, a Thursday, transportation-department workers were advised of at least three trees that had fallen across Highway 2 within 20 miles of one another.
Hoping to limit falling trees along Highway 207 nearby, the Chelan County Public Utility District used a helicopter that afternoon to knock snow from the top-heavy conifers. The transportation department assisted in a temporary closure of Highway 207 for the operation.
But Chelan County PUD email records show that by Thursday night, dozens of trees in the area still looked ready to topple, and the utility planned to use the helicopter again, fearing Friday wouldn’t be any safer.
At around 1:20 p.m. Friday — less than a mile from where a huge tree fell across the highway Thursday, blocking traffic in both directions — the big grand fir snapped and crashed down upon the Owen family’s white Suburban.
The two parents, sitting up front, were killed instantly.
From the middle seats, rescuers eventually extricated Mayer, his wife Jaime and her sister Jessica Owen, all three still alive but with shattered bones and other serious injuries that have put in question when any of the three will walk again on their own.
For Jessica Owen, who suffered a spinal-cord injury, that day may be years away.
The road was closed about three hours — long enough to remove the victims and clear the wreckage and the tree.
State Patrol warning
The morning after that accident, it seemed obvious to Morehead, the State Patrol sergeant, that Stevens Pass needed to be closed — and for more than a few hours.
By noon, troopers and motorists had alerted Morehead that at least five more trees had fallen in the area since midnight — three onto Highway 2 — and other ice-laden trees were leaning precariously over the roadway.
Morehead didn’t want his own troopers on the highway, let alone the thousands of drivers headed over the pass for the holidays. So around noon that Saturday, he sent out a call to the WSDOT that he wanted the highway closed.
But as he headed out to help with the closure, he received surprising news from a dispatcher: The transportation department was refusing to close the highway. Morehead radioed again that he wanted the road shut down — now — until the trees in the area could be assessed.
Again, WSDOT refused. A WSDOT employee told the State Patrol that the department’s area superintendent and an engineer still were considering what to do.
“I was just baffled — completely baffled,” said Morehead, who did not press the issue further with transportation-department officials in Olympia.
“I thought, well, they must have more information than I do,” he said. “I didn’t know what they were thinking or what they did to make sure the road was safe. Did they have an arborist check things out? I don’t know.”
Just as the Patrol had feared, another tree snapped and fell onto a car that Saturday afternoon, injuring the five people headed for Seattle. Concerned for the safety of rescuers and troopers responding, Morehead urged them to help the injured and clear the scene as quickly as possible.
Right after that accident, the transportation department closed the highway for 35 miles between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth, a closure that lasted three days.
Karen Koehler, lawyer for the Owen family, said many of the accidents she litigates result from a lack of communication between public agencies. But in this case, she said, transportation-department officials had been warned overtly and repeatedly about hazardous conditions.
“If law enforcement asks you to close down a road for public safety, why do you say no? That is what I don’t understand.”
The evening of the second fallen-tree accident, Capt. Karen DeWitt of the State Patrol tried to track down exactly who at the transportation department had refused to close the highway.
According to DeWitt’s investigative case log, that person was the area’s maintenance superintendent, Rick Wood.
Wood declined in an email to be interviewed for this story. “I wouldn’t be able to speak to any specifics due to possible pending litigation,” Wood wrote.
Others at the transportation department also have been instructed not to speak about eitherfallen-tree accident. David Bierschbach, assistant regional administrator for maintenance in Wenatchee, said that’s not because WSDOT did anything wrong.
“None of our folks can perfectly predict every hazard that can happen out in nature,” Bierschbach said. “Our crews — the last thing they want to see is a tragic accident out there. Their own families live out there.”
In the weeks following the accidents, the transportation department’s initial refusals to close the highway led to several intense meetings between the two agencies about which one has the authority to close down a highway, Morehead said.
State Patrol spokesman Robert Calkins said that since the accidents, the Patrol has reaffirmed its authority to close down highways without WSDOT approval. It has always had that authority, Calkins said, but historically it has deferred to WSDOT on closing routes for a purpose other than accident-scene investigations.
Closing a major route like Stevens Pass can have a big economic impact, Calkins said, and — in a majority of cases — WSDOT has more expertise in knowing when a closure should be made.
But he said Patrol officials reserve the authority to make such a call themselves.
“We’re reiterating, in light of this, that if they see an imminent hazard, that it’s OK to take some action.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ AlexaVaughn.