SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Fifty years ago, 26 died in the Granduc Avalanche



April 17, 2015
Friday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska - Fifty years ago, an unimaginable tragedy swept the twin mining towns of Hyder and Stewart, 70 miles east of Ketchikan, at the head of Portland Canal.

On February 18, 1965, an avalanche struck a camp at the Granduc Mine, killing 26 miners. Hundreds of rescue workers from both Canada and Alaska converged on the site, eventually managing to rescue nearly 100 other miners from the camp.

By 1964, much of the mining activity in Portland Canal had waned. Hyder and Stewart had been boom towns in the 1920s and 1930s as hundreds of miner flocked to area seeking gold, silver and copper. The Premier Mine on the Canadian side of the border had been one of the world’s richest gold mines before it finally played out in the 1950s.

jpg Fifty years ago, 26 died in the Granduc Avalanche

Remains of the famous Granduc Copper Mine which closed in the early 1980s, leaving millions of dollars of equipment buried in the mountains. Click here for a larger view.
Photograph By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD,
both are prolific contributors to Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons

The area where the Granduc was located, some 30 miles inland from Stewart had been explored off and on for several decades, but finally went into significant production in 1964 and was expected to be the economic engine that kept both Stewart and Hyder alive. More than 200 workers, from both Stewart and Hyder, would be employed at the remote mine site.

In 1928, Charlie Lake and Neil McDonald were working on what they believed to a significant copper deposit at Tide Lake, this was the beginning of what would be called the Leduc ore body. They never found commercially viable amounts but in 1948, Tom McQuillan and Einar Kvale found the copper that Lake and McDonald were looking for, according to Canadian historian Murray Lundberg.

McQuillan and Kvale optioned their claims to Granby Mining, which then spent a decade a half working on a plan to access the nearly inaccessible deposits.

“The ore, would be extracted through a 11-mile-long tunnel, to be drilled from both ends,” Lunberg wrote on the Explore North Website in 2010. Several camps were set up, including one to house 140 people at the Leduc Glacier end of the proposed tunnel.”

The Leduc glacier camp, also called the Portal Camp, had four bunkhouses, a dining hall, a recreation hall, auditorium, offices and a power house. It was designed to be a self-sufficient camp because it was only accessible through planes - landing on a runway on the Leduc Glacier when weather permitted and that wasn’t very often – or by caterpillar trains which had to be pulled 22 miles through the mountains over several glaciers and a 5,500 foot mountain pass.

Most supplies came by the cat train because the area receives one of the highest amounts of snowfall anywhere in the world, an average of 800 inches a year, with some years topping more than 1,000 inches of snow.

The period before February 18, had been particularly snowy in the mountains near the glacier. Lundberg reports that 16 feet of snow fell in the second week of February alone.

“The snow that fell in the second week of February 1965 merely meant some extra work to keep their work areas usable,” Lundberg wrote. “But high above the camp, incredible pressures were building as the snow deepened.”

At 10:16 am, the snow gave way and millions of tons slid off the hillside above the Portal Camp. Although avalanches can usually be heard coming, in this case the survivors reported the collapse was so sudden that most didn’t hear anything until the snow swept through the camp.

“Radio operator Innis Kelly managed to get off a brief ‘mayday’ before his equipment faltered,” Lundberg wrote. “Virtually the entire camp was wiped out. Some of the survivors were missed when the slide split into two forks, and many were able to dig themselves out when they were buried. The tunnel had only been driven 28 feet when the avalanche struck, and several men were protected inside it.”

When word of the disaster got out, rescuers from Ketchikan, Annette Island and Prince Rupert rushed to the site. One of the responders was Ketchikan’s Ken Eichner, the founder of TEMSCO Helicopters.

In his 2002 book, “9 Lives of An Alaska Bush Pilot” Eichner devotes twenty pages to the Granduc Avalanche and the rescue mission.

He noted that the weather in the region had been poor for several days. With heavy rain and snow and winds gusting up to 70 mph.

Eichner was familiar with the border mountains because he was one of the pilots who occasionally serviced the mine and also had worked on the nearby Grace Lake drilling project on the American side of the border.

Eichner says the miners at the camp never knew what hit them.

“Floating silently down the hillside, the roar of the avalanche couldn’t be heard over the wind and the weather,” Eichner wrote in 2002. “According to one survivor, who had been out sweeping snow off the roof, a gentle breeze blew across the compound causing several to look up. At that instant, WHAP! The avalanche was on them.”

Eichner said that the week distress call was heard and that people in Ketchikan mobilized immediately, including members of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad led by Dick Borch.

The weather remained poor and daylight was already slipping away. With only an hour so of daylight left, Eichner and others quickly readied their aircraft and headed for the Granduc.

Eichner wrote that that because of weather issues they had to take a different route, involving the Chickamin River rather than going through Stewart like normal.

When he got to Leduc, the normal landing spot had been completely destroyed. When he finally found a spot safe enough to land, he got out of his helicopter only to hear another avalanche rumbling down the mountain.

He lifted off and found himself in a complete white out. He took an educated guess and set the helicopter down in an area he thought would be safe from avalanches and shut the engine off for the night. He and Ketchikan Doctor A.W. Wilson spent a cold night in the helicopter several miles from the mine camp. All night long they were woken up the sounds of avalanches in the nearby mountains.

Early the next morning, they got to the site and found that nearly the entire camp had been destroyed, only one building was undamaged.

“The miners had frantically tried to dig out their friends and co-workers until it was too dark to see and had succeeded in finding many of them alive,” Eichner wrote. “Bonfires provided the only real warmth. Broken and bleeding, the miners crowded into the (only remaining) bunkhouse. They were all suffering from hypothermia.”

Initially, appproximately 40 miners were missing after the avalanche, more than a dozen would be found alive. For example, miiner Clarence Moore was pulled out the wreckage of the tool shed 24 hours after the avalanche.

But the biggest miracle involved Finar Myllar.

“I had just landed the helicopter,” Eichner wrote. “And these guys (on the cat that was digging for bodies) got all excited. Here was a pair of eyes blinking at them. The funereal mood disappeared and rescuers lept into action, overjoyed to find a survivor.”

Myllar had been buried for more than 72 hours, three days.

Myllar had been buried in the remains of the helipad and a piece of plywood created a pocket of air near him. Helicopters had actually been landing directly on top of him for some time, but he told his rescuers that he could hear nothing under the snow.

He was taken to Ketchikan General Hospital where he was treated for severe frostbite on his hands, arms, legs and feet. Part of his treatment involved a decompression chamber that was flown in from Buffalo, New York. He lost several fingers and toes, but otherwise recovered from his ordeal.

During the early days of the operation, the avalanche and the rescue operation was front page news in newspapers across the country. Myllar’s discovery after three days led nearly all the newspapers in the country and reporters from all over came to Stewart and Ketchikan to get the story.

Overall, the death toll of the disaster was 26, according to Lundberg. The camp was never rebuilt because it was clear that site could never be protected from future avalanches.

Briefly, Granby considered an open pit mine at the site, but the amount of snow that would have to be moved each winter made it too expensive.

The Granduc continued to operate, from the other end of the tunnel, for nearly 20 years. The price of copper fluctuated in those years and the mine would open when it was high and close when it was low. The Granduc proved in those years to be the economic powerhouse in the area, as Stewart doubled in size, a road was built from the mine to the community and a large dock for the copper exports was built.

Finally, the Granduc closed for good in the early 1980s. Thirty years later, the area still awaits the next big strike that will bring prosperity, but also the potential for danger, from the nearby mountains.

Rescue workers clear snow and debris after the Granduc mine avalanche near Stewart, B.C., in 1965 in which 28 people died.


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