Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

State Troopers report details death at Alaska Excursions glacier tour


September 6, 2018

Aerial view of Davidson Lake where Alaska Excursions runs tours.

Launching a canoe in high water too close to rapids and a corresponding engine malfunction contributed to the death of a Nevada pastor this summer on a tour with Skagway based Alaska Excursions-a company that was criticized by former employees this spring for operating unsafely and neglecting maintenance of its equipment.

Steven Todd Willis, 50, died July 30 after his canoe overturned in rapids, spilling 10 guests and one guide into a river fed by the Davidson Glacier. All of the passengers were wearing life jackets.

Alaska State Troopers Nicholas Zito from Juneau and Trent Chwialkowski from Haines both responded to and investigated Willis' death, which troopers designated as an accidental drowning.

Alaska Excursions guide Taylor Hale, 25, loaded 10 passengers into a 31-foot canoe further downstream toward the rapids than six other canoes that were part of the tour, according to trooper reports obtained Wednesday after the CVN made a public information request last week.

"Ours was the only canoe that was boarded from the lower part of the beach, the part closer to the rapids," passenger Manu Sharma reported to Chwialkowski. "I remember thinking 'Why are we doing this? But [I felt] no red flags at that point."

Sharma whose wife was also on board, told troopers they didn't receive "much of a safety briefing."

"What it was, was 'If you fall into the water, it's going to be cold. Don't go into the water. If you do we'll extend a paddle to you or a rope if farther away,'" Sharma told troopers. "There was no mention of what to do if the canoe capsizes or any of that."

Sharma said when Hale launched the canoe passengers couldn't get it pointed upstream and were perpendicular when they bumped into other canoes that were tied up downstream.

After several unsuccessful attempts to start the motor it finally fired, but wouldn't go into gear.

"There was a mechanical issue with it," Hale told investigators. "It was definitely one of the highest water days of the season up to that point."

Sharma said his wife froze and stopped paddling as their canoe listed downstream and took on water. He told her to not panic and that they were going into the water. "I told my wife to hold on [to] my hand and to not let go," Sharma told troopers.

When the canoe tipped Hale climbed on top of the inverted canoe and attempted to reach some of the passengers, but eventually told them to swim to shore.

As the current drove them downstream, Sharma said Willis shouted at his fellow passengers to watch out for rocks. Sharma and his wife escaped the main current and crawled through a shallow, but strong current to get to shore.

In his report, Chwialkowski wrote that recorded interviews and statements made by other passengers shared similar recollections.

Passenger Leslie Cobb "was surprised that the safety briefing never included the plan if the canoe were to capsize" and "stressed that her guide didn't take their canoe up to the launch area like all the rest."

Passenger Kathleena Smallwood said their canoe departed 20 to 30 feet downstream from the rest of the canoes. She said the river's current took her and her husband quite a way downstream where she hit a rock and injured her leg. "Mr. Willis was going for the same rock and hit it at the same time they did," Smallwood told the troopers. "He bounced off and went to the right back into the current."

Willis' wife, Sheri Willis, told troopers she saw her husband turn onto his back with his legs pointed downstream. "She didn't see anyone else go after him and she didn't see him after he went around the bend," the troopers' report recounts.

While all the other passengers made it to shore the current washed Steven Willis to the opposite side of the river. Rescuers found him dead on a sandbar, still partially submerged in a shallow eddy.

Chwialkowski interviewed Alaska Excursions operations manager Elsie Cecetello who gave him an overview of their safety briefings and their process for loading passengers into canoes. "She stated every time, typically, except for today, the canoe [is] untied and brought forward to the higher beach area where passengers [load] front to back," his report states.

Trooper Zito interviewed Alaska Excursions owner Robert Murphy who told him the Yamaha 6 horsepower motor was new in May. "I informed Robert that the canoes needed to be registered ASAP, which he stated he has already started and they need to have required safety gear on board to include a throwable device," Zito wrote. "Robert advised his guides do not have [United States Coast Guard] licenses, because the river is not considered a navigable waterway."

The United States Coast Guard does not consider that water body as a navigable waterway so they do not have licensing or compliance jurisdiction, Zito wrote in his report.

Chwialkowski found the canoe near the mouth of the river. "It was on the right side of the channel looking upstream," his report states. "The port bow had a severe crack in it and the stern was gone as was the motor, which wasn't recovered."

Alaska Excursions began again offering trips within days of the drowning.

Around 10 former employees publicly criticized Alaska Excursions earlier this year when it applied for a new Glacier Point commercial ATV tour permit with the Haines Borough. Former tour manager Sam Edwards and other guides wrote to the borough assembly last spring. "The maintenance on the skiffs, busses, ATVs and canoe motors was extremely spotty and it was often very hard to get a mechanic to come out, even when we were on the verge of not being able to run a trip," Edwards wrote in March.

Former guide Alton Smith told the assembly in February that the most dangerous part of the tour was the probability of a canoe motor failing above the rapids. "The tour is marketed as a paddling canoe tour, but that is not the case at all," he wrote. "The tour relies heavily on the use of the outboard motors to shuttle guests to the glacial delta on time and when you are running them at full throttle for 5 months straight in extremely silty water, they breakdown all the time."

Other former employees said the company pressured boat captains to run trips in unsafe weather. Some complained the Glacier Point camp lacked critical medical supplies.

Murphy and other employees disputed the claims. Murphy said many of the employees who were critical had been fired. He issued cease-and-desist warnings to several employees who criticized the company.

In August of 2017, 28 tourists were injured after an Alaska Excursions Unimog touring vehicle went off the road in Skagway-injuries included broken bones.

After several public hearings this spring, the borough assembly voted 3-3 to approve the company's new ATV tour permit, with Mayor Jan Hill breaking the tie. Assembly members Heather Lende, Tom Morphet and Sean Maidy voted against approving the permit. Members Tresham Gregg, Stephanie Scott and Brenda Josephson voted in support of the ATV permit.

The CVN reached out to six current Glacier Point guides for comment, all of whom did not respond or refused to comment for this story.

The company did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Click here to view the pdf of the Alaska State Trooper report:


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