Witness haunted by fatal crash near Stevens Pass

STEVENS PASS — Amy Davis dutifully checked the road conditions before getting into her pickup truck for the long drive east across Stevens Pass last Friday.

“I thought we were free and clear,” the Marysville woman said.

The roads, it turned out, were fine.

It was the tall trees lining the mountainous stretch of highway that posed the silent danger. Their branches grew heavy. The snow froze, turning limbs into icy anvils.

As thousands of drivers crossed the pass to and from Snohomish County, the trees grew weaker, unable to bear the weight.

The pines and alders snapped; the Douglas firs uprooted.

More than 38 trees toppled over U.S. 2 east of Stevens Pass toward Leavenworth. That triggered a four-day closure of the major east-west highway. Each tree that fell was more than a foot in diameter.

It was a Ponderosa pine, roughly 125 feet tall and four-feet wide, that stopped Davis in her tracks. She spied it moving from her rearview mirror after she drove past. It broke at its trunk, bounced and struck a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban carrying six people. The SUV, mere seconds behind Davis, slammed into a snowbank.

Davis called 911 and raced to the family’s aid.

“As I was running I heard a cry I will never forget … and I knew it was going to be bad,” she said.

A Bothell couple, Timothy Owen and Cheryl Reed, 58 and 56, were dead.

Davis and another woman tried to comfort and keep alert the surviving family members, three of whom were trapped in the backseat. They were clearly in shock. The rescuers could not reach them with their hands. Words of reassurance were their only salve.

Jessica Owen, Jamie Owen Mayer and her husband, Steven Mayer, all remained at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on Tuesday. All are in their mid-20s. They were listed in serious condition and remained in intensive care, a hospital spokeswoman said. A fourth passenger, Jeremy Owen, 22, was treated and released from another hospital.

The half hour Davis spent trying to soothe the survivors seemed like an eternity as they waited for medics to arrive.

Others helped the best they could. One family brought Jeremy Owen into the warmth of their car and tended to his medical needs. A man Davis was told was an off-duty police officer directed traffic. A man with a chain saw began cutting up the fallen tree so medics could get through.

The scene haunts Davis.

That night the images of the family torn apart so quickly by such freakish misfortune kept returning to her mind.

Moments before the tree tumbled to the pavement, Davis noticed an eerie omen: silently swaying powerlines.

She thinks how a few seconds spared herself and her family.

Davis, an Oregon State University graduate student home for the holidays, was headed to Eastern Washington to celebrate Christmas and her grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary in Oroville. Her mom kept her company in the passenger seat of her pickup truck and her dad and brother drove on ahead in another vehicle.

“It reiterated that life is extremely fragile and you don’t have much time here and you have to appreciate the people you surround yourself with,” she said.

Friday’s tragedy was followed Saturday by another tree falling on a car along the same stretch of U.S. 2. Between the two events, two people were killed and nine were injured. On Saturday, the state Department of Transportation closed the highway.

U.S. 2 over Stevens Pass is a busy corridor. The average daily traffic load is about 5,000 vehicles. Around the winter holidays, that number typically doubles.

On Christmas afternoon, maintenance crews were able to clear the highway of fallen trees. Branches had sloughed their heavy loads. With a favorable weather forecast, the highway was reopened. By then, the highway had been closed for 69 hours.

Maintenance crews will continue to monitor conditions, Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Adamson said Wednesday.

Adamson has spoken with several longtime maintenance employees who work that stretch of U.S. 2.

While avalanches and rock slides come with the terrain, trees have not been an issue in the past.

“In 30 years, we have never closed Stevens Pass because of a threat of falling trees,” Adamson said. “Until now.”

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

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