By DAN FOX
& ALYSSA DE ANGELUS

An accident on the Davidson Glacier River resulted in the death of 50-year old Las Vegas resident Todd Willis, when an Alaska Excursions canoe overturned in the water on July 30.

According to the Alaska State Troopers, at 10:39 a.m. the trooper dispatch was alerted by Haines’ Police Department of the accident. Eight other passengers and the boat operator had also gone into a rapids area on the glacial-fed river.

A United States Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter en-route to Skagway was diverted to the scene, where a USCG rescue swimmer went into the water to recover Willis. The other passengers and boat operator were able to make it to shore with no incidents.

Alaska X owner Robert Murphy said after the accident occurred, guides began bringing guests back to shore before employing trauma bags and throw bags.

One of the guides, who is also an EMT, immediately called authorities and worked to get to a base phone to ensure reliable communication for help. Another guide worked to help guests by providing blankets and hypothermic gear.

“A guide on an ATV excursion saw the accident and alerted everyone to a guest in the water,” Murphy wrote in an Aug. 8 email. “Then he went to base camp to also call the USCG directly and shorten their response time. Simultaneously, we canceled all boats and excursions and routed empty boats to the area. This included larger guest boats which are heated and have additional blankets and hypothermic gear. At this point in our investigation, we are confident that the response was immediate and effective.”

Murphy said the USCG and State Trooper reaction to the situation was “exemplary.”

Events from the last year have been thrust into the spotlight following the July 30 accident.

Last August, an Alaska X unimog vehicle tipped over in Dyea, causing several injuries. More recently, Alaska X faced criticism in the springtime over safety and maintenance complaints made by former employees when the company was seeking a permit to expand its ATV Tours at Glacier Point from 15,000 to 30,000 people. Comments made by the ex-workers included criticisms on the company’s safety training, equipment maintenance and the absence of certain medical supplies and devices.

During the discussions, Haines Borough Assembly Member Tom Morphet had expressed concerns about approving the permit.

“What struck me at the time was the former employees were willing to write on the record and testify in person to their concerns,” Morphet said in a recent phone interview. “The volume and the specificity of the complaints suggested to me that this wasn’t just sour grapes by former employees, these concerns are legitimate.”

While the ex-employees criticized the company and others opposed the expansion of the ATV tour, a large number of people are also on the Haines Borough record in support of the Skagway-based tour company.

“When we first heard the criticisms, we were surprised, and troubled by them because we knew much of them to be untrue,” Murphy said in the Aug. 8 email.

“However, despite our suspicions about the motivations behind the criticisms, we immediately undertook a thorough review of the claims being asserted, and tried to identify any shortcomings in the quality of our operations and our commitment to safety.”

Murphy said an internal review of the issues raised during the ATV permit discussion focused on company procedures, motors and the mechanics for vehicles and maintenance schedules, as well as requesting feedback from current staff regarding maintenance and safety training.

“Our equipment is new and on a rotating schedule that is documented with the appropriate paperwork,” Murphy said. “In addition, each guide or employee on the water is required to participate in a week-long swift water rescue training, all of our rescue trauma bags include new equipment – which includes a mobile AED – and we had EMS review our training protocols.

“Based on all that we have done, including our internal investigation so far, we do not believe that this most recent incident is a result of improper maintenance.”

While no incidents have been reported from the Glacier Point ATV Tour at this time, Morphet said a few people have requested the Alaska X permit be pulled for the year and that the Haines assembly suspend the company’s operations as a result of the capsized canoe on July 30.

Morphet said he believes that the ATV tour permit is not the problem, and that instead he is pushing for better execution of current safety plans.

Murphy said Alaska X is still investigating the July 30 incident and is “not yet prepared to share specific details until such time that we are confident we understand the incident fully.”

“We are deeply saddened by this accident and working to review all policies and procedures,” Murphy said. “But we are also implementing safeguards to ensure that each policy/procedure is followed to ensure this does not happen again.”