Photos courtesy of Alaska State Troopers
An 11-passenger van (top), driven by 72-year-old Lewis Hayes, crashed head on into a Ford pick-up (bottom) driven by Jason Small, 39, of Girdwood. Small died at the scene, and 16 people were injured in the 3-vehicle collision that shut down the highway for nearly 8 hours on Thursday, Aug. 4. The cause of the accident is still under investigation.
By Paddy Notar and Ken Smith
Turnagain Times Correspondents
On Thursday, Aug. 4 around 1:40 p.m., a Seward Highway crash involving three vehicles at mile 104 just north of Indian, claimed the life of 39-year-old Jason Small of Girdwood, and 16 other people suffered serious injuries. The accident closed down the highway until 10 p.m.
Jeff Heaton, a resident of Indian, was coming home from Anchorage the day of the crash, when he saw what he describes as the most awful accident of his life.
Heaton, 43, was traveling southbound on the highway directly behind a Chevrolet Suburban SUV. Suddenly, a full-size 11-passenger van, driven by 72-year-old Lewis Hayes, heading northbound, crossed the centerline into the southbound lane and struck a Ford F-150 pickup driven by Small and then continued in the southbound land and hit the Suburban in front of Heaton.
“I called 911 and they kept asking me questions about how bad the wreck was,” Heaton said. “I told them to send everybody. Send cops from Huffman, send the troopers. Just get help here. I told them it was really bad. There were at least four kids, under 10 years old that ran out of the SUV. In retrospect it seems so surreal.”
After placing the emergency call, Heaton began helping people that had exited the Suburban.
“There were people screaming,” he said. “It was almost like a dream. Four minutes after everyone was out the Suburban it just burst into flames. I skidded about 150 feet to avoid getting in the wreck. I slammed on my brakes, they locked up and I ended up about 12 inches from a van full of people that just got hit head on. The suburban and the van were on top of each other.”
As passengers began running from the van, the Suburban continued to burn, engulfing the highway in dark, black smoke. Just then, an anonymous man jumped out of his car and put a chain on the back of the van and pulled it away from the burning SUV.
“He saved people’s lives,” said Heaton. “He got in his car and took off. No one knows who he is, but he’s a hero.”
Six people made it out of the van, but two passengers were still trapped inside. There were eight people in the Suburban as well, but all of them made it out safely before the vehicle caught fire. 43-year-old Dorota Balaban, who lives in Anchorage, drove the Suburban. Her husband, their five children and a friend were also in the vehicle.
“I need to say this, the state troopers did an amazing job,” Heaton said. “People give them a lot of grief for some things, but they were just incredible in how they responded and helped. They took care of a bunch of people who were seriously injured and brought a lot of calmness into a crazy situation.”
Eight troopers arrived at the scene, including five from Girdwood, some that came in on their day off after receiving emergency calls; one trooper responded from Anchorage and two from Soldotna. Girdwood trooper, Sgt. Mike Zweifel, said there were troopers on the scene less than 10 minutes after receiving a call from dispatch.
“It looked like something you would see with a big airplane crash,” he said. “People walking around. Not knowing who was in the accident. A lot of smoke and chaos. You’ve got three totaled vehicles spread out over the highway. One completely engulfed in flames, thick dark smoke, injured people walking around and people trapped in vehicles. We’re trying to figure out who needs immediate help.”
Small was entrapped in his vehicle after the truck careened off a guardrail and spun back across the highway into a rocky mountainside. Zweifel said Small was still alive when troopers arrived but passed away shortly afterwards, still trapped in his truck.
Both the Girdwood and Anchorage fire departments arrived and the entrapped people were freed from their vehicles and the burning Suburban was extinguished.
As for the exact cause of the crash, it’s still under investigation and could take months to determine, said Zweifel.
“I think the guy driving the van fell asleep and went into the opposite lane and was totally out of control,” said Heaton. “He was coming right at me. I couldn’t believe it.”
A LifeMed helicopter flew Hayes to Providence Hospital with life-threatening injuries; however, as of Tuesday, Aug. 16, he was upgraded from critical to fair condition, said hospital spokeswoman Crystal Bailey. Other injured passengers in the van were taken by ambulance with various serious injuries, said Megan Peters, spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers. The passengers in the Suburban were treated on scene for minor injuries.
Anyone who drives on the Seward Highway, built in 1951, will tell you it’s a beautiful drive. It’s listed by AAA as one of the 10 most scenic drives in America, but it’s also one of the most dangerous roads to drive on in the country.
For most of the highway, there are only two lanes, and you have rocks and animals to deal with and they can come into your path at any time. There are Dall sheep on the ridges of the hill by the highway near Beluga Point, bald eagles flying overhead, beluga whales swimming in Turnagain Arm, bear and moose can appear at anytime; onlookers routinely pull over to the side of the rode to take photos and drivers are easily distracted by the plethora of activity along the roadside.
“It’s a busy highway,” said Zweifel. “It’s been deemed a highway safety corridor because it’s a dangerous highway. It’s a winding, narrow highway with highway speeds mixed with scenery, long days with daylight. And in the winter, long hours of darkness with snow, icy roads with narrow turns and speed makes for a bad combination.”
The highway also has passing lanes on winding sections of the highway between Potter Marsh and Bird Creek. Over the years, crash fatalities on the highway between Potter Marsh and Portage have been numerous.
On the Seward Highway, particularly between Mile 117 (Potter Marsh) south to Mile 87 (3 miles south of Girdwood), statistics gathered between 2006 and 2009 show that the leading cause of fatalities was failure to keep in the proper lane (25 percent) resulting in 15 fatalities; speeding was the second leading cause (16 percent) causing 10 fatalities, and impaired drivers (11 percent) resulting in seven fatalities.
“How many accidents and deaths are we going to have before someone does something?” asked Heaton. “We need to fix the highway. Maybe we need to have a 45 mile per hour zone between Indian and Bird Creek. They do it in Moose Pass. This road can kill you.”
A Celebration of Life was held for Jason Small at Challenge Alaska in Girdwood on Aug. 10. Small was an employee at Alyeska Resort for four years as a snowmaker and also worked as a snowcat driver for Girdwood based Chugach Powder Guides.
Small was an avid snowboarder and mountainboarder. A gladed ski trail at Alyeska is going to be named after him, and his ashes will be spread on top of the run.