After escaping a deadly, Alaskan landslide that toppled 100-foot trees “like dominoes,” former Lewiston Sun Journal sports writer Dave Longtin is glad to be alive.
“I’m at the site,” Longtin said Thursday. “They’re cleaning debris, looking for remains.”
Longtin said of three people initially missing in Tuesday’s landslide, one body has been recovered and two men are still missing. One is Longtin’s colleague, William Stortz.
Longtin, 44, is a 1989 graduate of Saint Dominic High School and a 1992 graduate of the University of Maine.
After working for the Sun Journal, he got an engineering degree and moved to Montana, where he met his wife. They moved to Alaska in 2002. Today, he’s a public works engineer for the coastal city of Sitka, situated between the Gulf of Alaska and the mountains of British Columbia with a population of about 9,000.
Robert Woolsey, a KCAW radio reporter covering the story in Sitka, said the city is small and most everyone lives about a mile from where the landslide happened.
On Tuesday, Longtin and fellow worker Stortz, a city building inspector, were at a housing subdivision project. Two men were inside one of the houses painting, Longtin said.
Stortz and Longtin were inspecting culverts, which are important because the area is susceptible to violent runoffs from nearby mountains. Longtin was praising workers for doing a good job on the culverts when suddenly they heard a loud rumbling.
“It sounded odd,” he said. “We looked up and saw giant hemlocks, spruce trees. They were falling like dominoes, one right after the other.”
He and Stortz, and a few others in the area, started sprinting, he said. The avalanche of trees and mud barreled down, headed for them. They had been standing in a driveway that provided access to four house lots; the drive was in a ravine.
Within five or six seconds, the landslide reached the spot where they were standing.
Stortz, 61, is physically fit but does have a bad knee, Longtin said. “I didn’t sense he was running behind me.” He and another guy ran for about 15 seconds. “I stopped and turned around. There was no sign of William.”
They made a couple of attempts to go back, but the mudslide started moving again. Longtin called 911. As of Thursday, Stortz was not accounted for.
The area has had landslides before, but Tuesday’s, Longtin estimated, was 10 times worse than others. It was so massive, “there was probably 200 large, 100-foot trees on top of this muddy slurry going down the hill like water.”
He called the landslide “a 200- or 300-year event.”
While he was running from the landslide, “the guy I was running with turned around. He saw a house surfing on top of the mud.” Then that house disappeared into the mud. “There’s no evidence it was there. It’s gone.”
The two men inside the house were brothers in their 20s, Longtin said. The community is praying survivors will be found. “People are hoping,” Longtin said.
Longtin said there were no warnings of the mudslide. On Tuesday, the rain was “intense, pounding,” Longtin said. “It does rain a lot here.”
He’s thinking of Stortz. “He knew I was from Maine. He has a great, fake Maine accent. He makes fun of me.”
Cleanup and recovery will take weeks, Longtin estimated. It’s unknown whether the development hit by the landslide will be finished.
“We haven’t discussed that yet,” Longtin said. “Sitka is pinned between the ocean and mountains. There’s not a lot of developable land here.” The area is “beautiful, very isolated.”
People in the community are sad and want to help. “There’s been an overwhelming response by volunteers ready to help,” he said. Officials have limited who can go to the site because of concerns of unstable ground. “City hall is struggling not sending them all out here.”