By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
MARYSVILLE — A Marysville couple whose daughter was killed by a falling ice chunk near the Big Four Ice Caves won’t appeal a judge’s ruling to dismiss their wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government.
Grace Tam, 11, died July 31, 2010, from internal injuries. She was struck by an “enormous, truck-sized piece of ice” while more than a dozen feet from a cave, according to the lawsuit.
Her parents, John Tam and Tamami Okauchi, let the 60-day appeal period elapse.
“It was never about the money,” John Tam said. “We wanted to make it safer.”
The ice caves are the most popular hiking attraction in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, drawing thousands of visitors each year, particularly in the late summer. The caves are at the bottom of Big Four Mountain, and form in compressed, melting avalanche debris.
John Tam was preparing to take a family group photo when the ice chunk broke. Grace was sitting on a rock at least 18 feet in front of the caves when she was struck.
The family never went onto the ice or into the caves, Tam said.
A sign warning about the caves’ danger was missing from the trail that day. Tam said his family would have kept a greater distance from the snow fields had there been a sign.
A similar warning sign was posted at the parking lot near the start of the trail.
It read: “Danger! The caves are extremely unstable! DO NOT enter or climb on them. On Aug. 2, 1998, one death and a serious injury occurred due to the ice caves collapsing. You have a responsibility for yourself and your loved ones.”
A replacement sign had arrived the day before Grace died. Darrington District Forest Service officials told lawyers that the limited number of weekend staff were out working on forest trails and in campgrounds and not available to put up the replacement sign that weekend.
The sign was installed on Aug. 2, 2010, two days after Grace was killed.
Government lawyers argued that no federal law requires the Forest Service to replace safety signs on a certain schedule or where they must be posted.
Judge James Robart ruled in favor of the government’s motion to dismiss the case.
Tam was disappointed with the ruling, but insisted that the goal all along was to spare others.
“My wife and I really do not want any money from any lawsuit at all,” Tam said. “What we really want is to bring some sense (and) safety to the ice caves for it is an avalanche zone and the U.S. Forest Service knows about this. So why would they invite and continue to invite the public there?”
Tam still visits the base of the mountain to honor his daughter.
“Every time we’ve been there, we continue to see others wander out to the ice and inside the caves and that just breaks my heart,” Tam said.
District ranger Peter Forbes said the Forest Service has been trying to have staff at the ice caves on busy summer weekends as well as maintaining warning signs.
He said he knows some people are going into the caves.
“That’s a struggle that we face,” he said. “It’s just people, for whatever reason, they are just ignorant of the risk.”
The Tams also have spent time trying to get improved cell phone coverage to the area. They couldn’t get phone service in the mountains the day Grace died. She survived the initial impact but died about an hour later while help was being summoned, court papers said.
The Forest Service is trying to get emergency land-line phone service at Silverton. It would be about six miles from the caves.
“It’s still a fair distance,” Forbes said. “It’s the first place where we can physically put it.”
Instead of running up bills in lawyer fees, John Tam said his family will continue to donate money in their daughter’s memory. Grace’s dream was to open a shelter for mistreated animals.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org.