Assembly members to consider revoking Alaska X tour permit

Company involved in two lawsuits


September 13, 2018

Alaska State Trooper photo.

Troopers took a picture of the washed up canoe on the far side of the river.

The Haines Borough Assembly's commerce committee will discuss next week the borough's option to suspend or revoke Alaska Excursions' Glacier Point tour permit after details in an Alaska State Trooper report about the drowning of tour guest Steve Willis mirrored concerns brought to the assembly by the company's former guides in February.

Willis' widow, Sheri Willis, told the CVN this week she is suing Alaska Excursions. Willis said she wants to consult with her attorney before providing more details to the media. Sheri Willis was one of ten guests, including her husband, who were spilled into rapids after their canoe's motor malfunctioned on a tour in July.

Lisa Young, who booked a zip line tour with Alaska Excursions in August 2017, is also suing the company for negligence after a guide allegedly failed to operate the zip line's brake system, "sending [Young] careening into a nearby tree at a high rate of speed," according to the court complaint.

Young's attorney, Mark Rayburn, said she suffered from cracked vertebrae in her back, for which she is still receiving treatment that has resulted in $16,000 in medical bills. The complaint alleges Alaska Excursions was negligent in its failure to properly train its employees, failure to maintain the safety of their clients and that it was reckless in its operation of a zip line.

In February, former Alaska Excursions guide Alton Smith criticized the company's negligence in training their zip line guides. He told assembly members that the company shuffled unqualified employees into different roles to ensure it can run tours at the expense of safety. Management directed a shuttle driver to guide a zip line tour despite inadequate training, Smith alleged.

"Early on after training, she clipped herself onto the zip line incorrectly and would have fallen about 50 feet to the ground if she had not been tied to a 10-year-old guest who was luckily clipped to the cable," Smith said. "Two lives were put severely at risk that day in order to add six more people onto a tour."

Last February when former employees publicly criticized the company for poor safety and maintenance practices, Smith said the most dangerous part of the Glacier Point tour was the probability of a canoe motor failing above the rapids-motors which he and other guides said regularly broke down.

The canoe's outboard engine malfunctioned in July, which contributed to Steve Willis' drowning, according to victim and employee interviews detailed in the trooper report. Multiple victims complained they did not receive a detailed safety briefing, advice on what to do if their canoe overturned, and that their guide loaded their canoe closer to the rapids than the six other vessels during the tour, according to the trooper report.

The current forced the canoe broadside and guests couldn't right their vessel by paddling. After several unsuccessful attempts to start the motor it finally fired, but wouldn't go into gear.

"There was a mechanical issue with it," Alaska Excursions guide Taylor Hale told investigators.

The canoes were unregistered with the state and didn't have throw bags (lines used to rescue overboard passengers), according to troopers.

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

Assembly member Tom Morphet proposed discussing the revocation or suspension of Alaska Excursions Glacier Point tour during Tuesday's meeting. The borough manager can revoke the company's permit due to public safety concerns, according to borough code. "This borough revoked the tour permit of Dave Button," Morphet said. "No one ever died under Dave's tours. I think this is worthy, at least, of discussion, at the very least."

The Haines City Council in 2000 heard more than 25 complaints about tour operator Dave Button who allegedly poached customers from other tours and lied to visitors about other events being cancelled and then tried to sell them one of his tours, according to CVN archives.

Commerce committee chair Sean Maidy told the CVN he thinks the borough should revoke both of Alaska Excursions' tour permits at Glacier Point.

Both Maidy and Morphet voted against approving the company's ATV permit in March.

Commerce committee member Tresham Gregg, who approved the ATV permit, said he'll be cautious when he considers revoking the permit. "It seems to me the better plan is to stop them from launching their canoes at the top of the [rapids] somehow," Gregg said. "Accidents happen. If you're flying in an airplane and you crash into a mountain, everyone dies."

About ten former guides criticized the company publicly last spring before the assembly approved a new ATV tour permit for the company at Glacier Point. Mayor Jan Hill broke the assembly's 3-3 tie vote to support the new ATV tour.

Alaska Excursions did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The commerce committee meets Sep. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in the assembly chambers.


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