Plaque shares girl’s story, reminds others to be careful at ice caves

SILVERTON — Her face, so friendly and innocent, looks out from a boulder beneath the sheer 4,000-foot wall, well beyond the snowfield’s edge at the Big Four Ice Caves.

She shares a smile that is neither mechanical nor obligatory.

The image, taken from a family photo and etched in metal, is of an 11-year-old Marysville girl on her first day of school entering the fifth grade.

Her parents chose this particular snapshot from hundreds of others. It conveys to them a daughter who is a little bit nervous to start another year, but quite self-assured.

Beside the picture are four paragraphs describing the tragic end to Grace Tam’s life, and warning others of the dangers the postcard-worthy ice fields can inflict. In the summer, water cascades into avalanche-dumped snow to hollow out the caves, a popular hiking destination about 20 miles east of Granite Falls.

On the fourth anniversary of her death Thursday, Grace’s family returned to a site not far from where a large chunk of ice broke free and crushed her. Grace died that afternoon.

Joining her parents and brother were workers from the U.S. Forest Service, an agency the family at one point sued in pursuit of safety reforms around the ice caves. They abandoned the case and chose a different path. On Thursday, the family worked side by side with a Forest Service crew, mixing epoxy to install the plaque and sharing hopes that it will make a difference.

As John Tam took a rag to polish his daughter’s likeness to a gleaming shine, he reflected on its beauty but rued its necessity.

“I wish I’m not seeing the plaque,” he said. “I appreciate the plaque. I wanted this plaque” but it simply can’t replace the daughter he so adored. Grace was an energetic child who loved to write and dreamed of opening a shelter for mistreated pets.

To the Forest Service, the sign is an attempt to spare others from similar loss.

“This is not a memorial,” said Adrienne Hall of the Forest Service’s Darrington Ranger Station. “This is a safety message.”

Officially, that might be the case, but the image of Grace’s face makes it seem more than that. It packs more power than other warning signs carved into the nearby granite.

“With the Tams’ help, hopefully we can save a life,” Hall said.

Grace was sitting on a flat rock, well back from the ice, enjoying a family outing on July 31, 2010. With no warning, a chunk broke free and bounced into her, crushing her pelvis.

Grace remained conscious for more than an hour, but by the time medical help arrived, it was too late.

It is important to the Tam family that people understand Grace never went inside or on top of the caves. Although estimates vary, she was believed to be about 20 feet away from the ice.

The last paragraph on the plaque describes the truth of the seductive spot: “The Tam family wants you to be aware that this is a beautiful but always changing environment. They hope that you enjoy the ice caves and Big Four Mountain only from a distance.”

Paul Moe, a registered nurse from south Snohomish County, knows firsthand that is the case. He was hiking with his family near the ice caves the day Grace died. He was there with them Thursday.

Moe has assisted in the operating room for countless brain and spinal surgeries for three decades at Swedish Hospital’s First Hill campus in Seattle. He was in the Air Force Reserves for 22 years serving as a flight nurse. He never lost a patient.

On the day Grace died, he worked diligently to keep her alive, hoping that medical help would arrive in time. He gathered people’s sweatshirts to make her a bed. He lifted her head onto some rocks to support her neck. He had others bring ice from the field to cool her body to slow the internal bleeding.

He had her family ask Grace questions to try to keep her from losing consciousness while others raced down the trail for help.

They worked on her in a corner of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest where cellphones are rendered useless by the rugged terrain.

What Moe lacked were the medical supplies to help Grace.

“It was very helpless compared to having a big hospital with everything you can dream of to help somebody,” he said. “She passed away in my arms. I have been with the family since.”

On Thursday, John Tam carried a white wooden cross over his right shoulder on the mile hike to the ice caves. He tried to auger it into the ground, but the rocky spot was too stubborn. He will return another day to finish the job.

The new cross with Grace’s name on it will stand near a lavender one he installed on an earlier visit. His wife, Tamami Okauchi, brought lavender-hued roses in honor of Grace’s favorite color. Grace’s bedroom still is painted in that shade.

Grace’s younger brother, William, and her dog, Sugar, joined the gathering on a sun-soaked morning.

John Tam hopes the plaque bearing his daughter’s message will be heeded.

“In the end, I wish it would save a life, one at least,” he said.

(Editor’s note: Reader comments on this story have been disabled.)

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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