Forest Service hopes to install land line closer to ice caves

VERLOT — When collapsing ice threatens lives and minutes matter, the Big Four Mountain terrain renders cellphones useless.

The scramble to reach 911 can seem an eternity.

From the caves to the parking lot is a 1.1-mile run down the trail.

The drive to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Service ranger station at Verlot stretches another 14.5 miles.

The Forest Service hopes to shorten that driving distance by nine miles next year by installing a land-line telephone to make 911 calls from Camp Silverton.

“That would save a lot of time,” said Adrienne Hall, manager of the Verlot ranger station east of Granite Falls. “I’m champing at the bit to get this in.”

When the ice caves collapsed July 6, killing one and injuring five, dispatchers received 911 calls roughly a half hour later. One came from the Verlot ranger station; another from a cellphone after the caller drove far enough to get reception, said Kurt Mills, executive director of SNOPAC 911, which provides emergency dispatch service for much of Snohomish County.

Mills said the quicker access to phone service would be helpful.

“That is an extremely rural area and even our public safety radio coverage is sparse in that mountainous region,” Mills said.

Annalisa Santana, 34, of Moreno Valley, California, died inside the caves from her injuries that day. Her brother, David Santana, 25, remains in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Her boyfriend, Dustin Wilson, 35, was released from the same hospital last weekend. The other three people injured in the caves were treated and released. The ice caves remain closed to hikers.

The parents of Grace Tam, who died July 31, 2010, after being struck by a boulder-sized chunk of ice, have described the wait for emergency medical help as agonizingly long. Records in that case show a caller reached 911 around 2:30 p.m. and a medical team arrived around 4:15 p.m. Grace, who was about 20 feet in front of the caves and never went inside, was pronounced dead around 5 p.m.

A phone at the Silverton campground would not require any money for 911 calls. It also could help with other emergencies, such as accidents on the icy roads and hiking injuries on different trails, Hall said.

Camp Silverton is on Forest Service land that was leased for outdoor education camps. For 55 years, the now vacant camp was a mountain school where Snohomish County students learned about nature first-hand.

The Everett School District was the last to use the camp. In 2003, it decided to shift resources to the Lively Environmental Center in Mill Creek.

In 2013, the district declared Camp Silverton surplus property and relinquished its special-use permit. It also agreed to pay up to $36,000 to tear down any decrepit buildings. These days, the Forest Service is working on plans for the property, Hall said.

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

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