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The Granduc Mine Avalanche

Stewart, British Columbia - 18 February, 1965

"Avalanche Accidents in Canada: A Selection of Case Histories of Accidents, 1955 to 1976"
by C. J. Stethem and P. A. Schaerer, National Research Council Canada, February 1979


    Twenty-six workmen killed; twenty workmen injured; buildings destroyed.


WEATHER

    In December 1964 the climate stations at Stewart, B.C., Ketchikan, Alaska, and Cape Annette, Alaska, recorded temperatures 5.5 C deg below normal and precipitation 35 percent below normal. Between 13 and 31 December only 12 mm of precipitation were recorded at Stewart, with overnight temperatures ranging down to -25°C. Both the precipitation and the temperature remained low in the first week of January.

    In February heavy snowfalls followed the early cold dry weather. For several days prior to 18 February a great sub-arctic storm raged and an estimated 4.3 m of snow fell at the Granduc Mine.


ACCIDENT SUMMARY

    The Granduc Mine is 30 km northwest of Stewart, B.C., near the Alaska border; the Leduc Camp of the mine was located on a moraine at the junction of the North and South Forks of the Leduc Glacier and was accessible only over glacier covered terrain.

    At 0957 h on 18 February an avalanche destroyed the southern portion of the camp and the buildings surrounding the mine portal, not quite blocking the portal. In the camp proper there were four bunkhouses, a recreation hall, warehouse, first-aid building and temporary hospital, a small helicopter hangar with workshop, and ten smaller buildings. After the avalanche only the bunkhouses, mine office, warehouse, the first-aid building/hospital were left intact. Between the camp and the portal, and at the portal itself, there were a large power-house, a large workshop and new and old dry buildings. All were demolished.

    There were 154 men in the Leduc Camp; 68 of them were caught in the avalanche. The others were in buildings that were untouched or were working in safe areas outside; 21 men were working underground. The men caught in the avalanche were shovelling roofs, bulldozing pathways, digging out equipment and working on construction and machinery in the area of the mine portal. One of them was Einar Myllyla who was alone in the carpentry shop.


RESCUE

    The avalanche destroyed the power-plant, but within minutes auxiliary power was connected to the radio transmitter and a distress signal was sent to the Stewart mine office. Survivors, fortunately including a doctor and first-aid attendant, commenced rescue operations immediately. At the time of the disaster 15 men were working outside the portal and all were buried. The mine shift boss, who had fortunately been on the surface just before, knew the approximate positions of all these men and set the underground crew working in the hope of uncovering survivors. All 15 were found fairly quickly; six were alive, but nine were dead on recovery.

    As most survivors in the rest of the camp were in varying states of shock and injury, the rescue work was slow. Lack of proper equipment and the ongoing storm hampered operations. Using bare hands, shovels and makeshift equipment, 41 men were saved that day, the last one to come out alive 5 1/2 h after the slide.

    The distress signal to Stewart was heard by that Alaska State Police who immediately notified the RCMP in Prince Rupert. Mine officials in Stewart had operations well under way, arranging for a helicopter base to be set up and ground rescue to be initiated. As normal air access to the mine from Stewart was still impossible, a helicopter base was set up at the mouth of the Chikamin River on the Alaska side. Meanwhile ground rescue teams had left by snowcat from the nearest road camp; although it would take 3 days to cover the rugged 55 km, this might be the only means of rescue if the area remained closed by air.

    The news was almost immediately in the hands of the press and brought aid from many quarters of British Columbia and Alaska. By 1700 h operations at the camp had become more organized: communications with Chikamin were established and a helicopter pad was bulldozed out of the debris in front of the wrecked mess hall. Unknown to all, Einar Myllyla lay 3 m below the pad in an icy prison, conscious of operations above him.

    On 19 February the first helicopter was able to reach the camp from the Chikamin River base, after spending the night on a glacier between the two sites, forced down by weather. Further machines brought additional trained rescue personnel and trained rescue dogs. An evacuation shuttle to Chikamin and Ketchikan was established.

    The search for survivors was greatly hampered by the mass of wreckage in the snow. Rescue dogs were confused by the maze of human scents. Probing turned up only more scattered material. Poor visibility, snow, fog, and wind continually hampered operations. For two days, between fitful comas, Myllyla could heard helicopters landing and taking off above him. Finally, on 21 February, after abandoning hope of finding further survivors, careful trenching of the debris began with bulldozers shearing off only a few inches at a time. Spotters rode the blade to watch for bodies.

    On that afternoon, while work progressed in the area of the helicopter pad, a large section of snow sheared away, revealing a blinking Myllyla, who looked up at astonished spotters saying "Don't move me, I think my legs are frozen." He had been buried for 3 days, 6 h. He was immediately taken to Ketchikan where a team of doctors saved all but the toes of one foot and some fingers. The last body was recovered by mine personnel on 18 June - leaving 26 dead and 20 injured.


AVALANCHE

    The details concerning this avalanche are rather sketchy. Montgomery Atwater, the expert flown in at the time of the disaster, described the starting zone on Granduc Mountain after the avalanche occurrence as having "hardly enough snow to cover the brush." His analysis of the situation was as follows:

"Abnormally low temperatures in early winter were accompanied by high winds which may have created unstable hard slab conditions. In February exceptionally heavy storms deposited large quantities of snow on the unstable base, until it finally collapsed yielding a large climax avalanche falling some 2500 vertical feet onto the camp."

    The prevailing winds in the area are usually west or southwest, scouring the slopes at Granduc Mountain. In this case an east wind may have loaded the starting zone with deep snow.


COMMENT

    The Granduc disaster is the largest of its type to have occurred in Canada since the Rogers Pass disaster of 1910. The rescue operation, involving so many diversified international groups, can only be praised as a massive effort on the part of many. Adverse weather conditions and geographic factors of terrain and location made all operations most difficult.

    Winter observations at Granduc Mountain had not been made prior to the winter of 1965 and no previous avalanche occurrences had been observed that winter. The camp was located on a moraine forming a promontory, with the adjacent depression providing a natural, probably unplanned, avalanche catcher. As the camp grew it proliferated down from the moraine, exposing more and more buildings. Furthermore, the mine portal was in the track of large avalanches. Avalanche control was not applied here prior to the disaster, but a large-scale program was later introduced for the protection of the camps and access road. During the rescue operation helicopter bombing at Granduc Mountain was carried out by M. Atwater, probably the first time this control method was used.






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