11/23/2014

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Was a deadly tragedy along snowy Stevens Pass preventable?

Was a deadly tragedy along snowy Stevens Pass preventable?
SEATTLE -- It's a long road to recovery for a local family devastated by a tragic accident. The snowy crash took the lives of their parents and left their children broken.

But was this tragedy preventable? The Problem Solvers pored through State Patrol reports and 911 phone calls and discovered that in spite of emergency conditions Washington's Department of Transportation refused to close the dangerous highway until it was too late.

With the help of a therapist, 27-year-old Jessie Owen determinedly stands, grabs an exercise bar and slowly slides step by step by step. Each halting movement is a victory.

Down the corridor at Kindred Hospital Seattle, Jessie's sister Jaime Mayer click, click, clicks on her crutches. For the young 24-year-old who used to run three miles every day, graduating from wheelchair to crutches is her victory.

"Just going on and figuring out how I'm gonna keep living with the changes that are in it now," says Jaime.

The accident happened on Dec. 21 -- the start of a family vacation in Leavenworth. But on snowy Highway 2, just east of Stevens Pass, in the blink of an eye a massive grand fir changed everything.

Jaime: "I didn't know that we'd gotten hit by a tree."

Jessie: "I think I thought I'd fallen asleep and had a bad dream."

No dream -- it was a nightmare. The tree crushed the Suburban's front seat, right where Timothy Owen and his wife Cheryl Reed Owen sat. Jeremy, in the very back, crawled out the rear window but Jessie, Jaime and Steven were seriously injured in the middle seats.

"I couldn't move," says Jessie, "and I thought it was cause I was trapped." Jessie didn't know, but a spinal cord injury prevented any movement at all.

Jaime broke both legs, her pelvis, ankle, ribs and left arm. With her one working arm she reached for her sister. "I touched the back of your shoulder, that's about all I could reach."

It was enough to keep Jessie together. "Jaime was talking to me, she put her hand on my back, and I could feel that and it was comforting."

All three were trapped in the wreckage, their parents in the front seat. "I'm not really sure how," says Jessie, "but I innately knew - my parents were gone."

The voices of paramedics kept them focused while firefighters used the jaws of life to cut away the Suburban's roof. "We didn't know our lives needed to be saved at that point," says Jessie, "but we felt safe in their arms."

What the family didn't know - couldn't know - is the day before their accident, sections of Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass had become a danger zone. Numerous 911 callers were reporting, "there's a big tree down, just went down blocking both lanes of traffic."

Chelan County Sheriff's Office and PUD faced an unprecedented problem with falling trees. A WSP Dispatcher notes, "We just got a call from Chelan PUD advising that they are going to be doing an emergency closure." They shut down local roads and advised people to stay home.

Karen Koehler, who represents the Owen/Mayer family, says "this is not a surprise for the DOT - all the DOT had to do was open their eyes."

Koehler says WSDOT did nothing to warn travelers along Highway 2.

"They knew something bad was gonna happen, in fact trees were falling all over the place like bombs and they didn't do anything," she said. "That's not right."

The Problem Solvers obtained Washington State Patrol's accident reports and 911 recordings from the days surrounding the Owen accident. There were numerous calls of trees down and threatening to fall down on Highway 2 both the day before and the day after their crash. One such call noted by a WSP Dispatcher, "There are several small trees that are hanging over the roadway."

Then the day after the Owen accident, WSP e-mail and phone logs indicate a WSP Sergeant twice asked WSDOT to close Highway 2. This is a WSP Dispatcher calling WSDOT maintenance Office: "I called my sergeant about all the fallen trees and he wants the highway closed." Both times WSDOT refused the request.

Then within hours another serious crash, a tree smashed onto the hood of Binay Pathak's car returning to Seattle from Leavenworth, "but when it really hit us, it hit us super hard." Pathak says he had no warning and only a split second saved them from having the tree fall where it could have directly hit himself, his pregnant wife or their three cousins riding in the back. "I was frightened as well," says Pathak, "I hope, I prayed that the baby was fine."

WSDOT then closed the stretch of Highway 2 over Stevens Pass and to the east and it stayed closed for three days. Dispatchers recorded calls confirm the sequence of events, "The sergeant said we need to close Highway 2 and DOT wouldn't do it and now we have a collision and they're like, 'Oh OK, we'll close it now.' "

The Pathak family were spared serious injuries. Though he is not planning on filing any claim with the state, Pathak wants to know why WSDOT didn't close the highway earlier. "I really feel that a lot of this was avoidable." He hopes the tragedy of the Owen crash will spur change in protocols, "that would be awesome, that would be the right thing and if that happens I'm happy."

Citing the possible Owen lawsuit, neither the State Patrol, nor WSDOT would comment specifically on these cases. WSP Spokesman Bob Calkins says troopers have been reminded that they have the authority, on their own, to close down roads if they believe there is a hazard. At the same time he adds, "Well one trooper in one location can only see one aspect of a situation so that is why it is best to defer to someone else's expertise." He's referring the expertise of WSDOT crews.

The head of WSDOT Communications Lars Erickson says in making decisions about road closures, the safety of the traveling public is the top priority of their maintenance crews. He says they have a meteorologist on contract to provide focused forecasts for specific areas and he adds that every situation and location is unique. "In Washington, we have a very diverse geography and weather conditions and the space and timing of those conditions are really impactful, so really, it is a case by case situation."

And both agencies say they typically work well together coordinating road closures.

Right now the Owen family isn't focusing on anger or blame, they're trying to hang onto a family smashed by pain and loss. Recalling her parents, Jessie says, "I just really miss talking to them and just - being in their presence."

Jaime hangs onto this thought, "even though they're not physically here any more, they're always with us." And what holds the four of them, Jessie, Jaime, Steven and Jeremy, what holds them together are the lessons of their parents. For Tim and Cheryl it was always family -- family first.

So in the acute rehabilitation hospital where Jaime learned to walk again and Jessie and Steven are still in the process, whenever Jeremy is home on the weekend from college they continue an important family tradition.

Jessie spells it out: "In this little hospital, we get a crock pot and we get together in our wheelchairs and our crutches and we hobble in here and try to eat a meal together to just - keep our family together."

The Owen family attorney plans this week to file a claim with the state for damages on behalf of the four survivors.

If you'd like to keep tabs on the Owen family or want to help in any way, you can visit their website.
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