We have spent endless hours investigating the circumstances of our son’s death.
Here is a summary of our investigation:
Winter season 2011/2012 had a record snowfall with high rated avalanche danger for Alaska. There was 3-5 feet of new accumulated snow the day prior to the avalanche incident. Wind storm the night prior to the avalanche had changed the snow pack. According to eyewitness’s statement, five days of storm meant “no economy that week” for Guide Company Alaska Helisking LLC. (AH). On March 13, 2012, the company ignored the dangerous conditions, and an urge to make money pushed the guides and the clients to go ski.
On the morning of the avalanche incident, the Haines Avalanche Information Center recorded an avalanche warning rating of : Considerable; Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making are essential. Snow condition when natural avalanches are possible; Human triggered avalanche likely. Haines Avalanche Information Center reports “This very heavy new load fell atop a snowpack with at least three distinct, widespread weak layers, as well as its own “upside-down” storm-snow weaknesses. The top foot or so is loose and makes for great skiing, but poorly bonded and very reactive.”
Guide Company (AH) was aware of the unstable and dangerous snow condition (based on film footage from the morning meeting of AH on March 13, before the avalanche incident). Two avalanche forecasts were given (with and without wind deposit snow) by leading guide Rob Liberman to the heli guides. Liberman was aware of surface hoar growth the day before. He said if wind was to deposit snow on that layer, it would be a reactive layer, (If surface hoar layer is buried is potential avalanche danger). After the morning meetings (including March 13), the guide members of AH routinely went to the shack in the premises of AH base where they smoked marijuana.
Our son Nickolay Dodov’s group was not informed about the dangerous snow conditions. “We are taking you to the bunny hill” indicating an attitude of casualness as client Dwell Bailey didn’t even take his 2nd safety device along, (air bag pack) , Bailey said “It wasn’t apparent to any of us /the clients/ that it was a danger”, was his statement. On the run prior to the avalanche incident, a snow pack evaluation was done. It showed dangerous conditions, and so the group was taken on an alternative route. Instead of calling the day off because of the dangerous conditions, Liberman told the group that the company was already paying for the helicopter, and persuaded them “lets go find better snow”. Guide Rob Liberman took them to a run called “Swanny”. The clients were concerned that the snow conditions looked suspicious. Liberman didn’t check the snow and assured them, “Don’t be concerned. It’s just an alpine bowl and the snow should be fine”; as documented on Go-Pro footage. (An alpine bowl with rolling hills and multiple gullies with steepness 25-40* with unstable new accumulated snow and wind slab that could break in long running fractures if they are over a weak layer is potential avalanches danger). This was the run on which the avalanche occurred.
Alaska Heliskiing rents inflatable airbag backpacks that keep skiers atop avalanches and could save a life. For safety in the helicopter, AH makes clients wearing the inflatable air backpacks to zip closed the deployment cord. There is a safety concern that the airbag might accidentally inflate in the helicopter possibly causing a crash. Rob Liberman wasn’t wearing any safety devises. (i.e. breathing device such as AvaLung and inflatable air backpack). Nor did he check the readiness of the client’s inflatable air backpacks once outside the helicopter before the run. Our son was wearing both devises; he was found under the snow with his air backpack deployment cord zipped up, inaccessible.
Nickolay Dodov was directed by Rob Liberman, “go to the right, there is better powder there”. This triggered 800 feet wide avalanche, with depth of the crown 16 inches to 6 feet. Search and rescue was slow and inadequate. AH operating permit states; To locate victim as soon as possible use all heliski groups already in the field. Sixteen people were at the scene of the avalanche; (5 clients and a guide on the top on “Swanny” Ridge, 5 clients and a guide in approaching helicopter when the avalanche released, and four survivors). Film footage is recording a guide named Nick Barlow waiting on some slope. His skis are off and it appears he is the guide with another group. The film records the audio words coming over his radio from the helicopter approaching the scene, the words come over the radio from Gabe, “Rob, Rob do you copy? I need you to get on Robs’s frequency right now…and get a count ASAP. I want you guys to hold tight…there’s hangfire. I’m going to put myself on-slope I’m going in”. The first guide was dropped on the scene approximately 25-30 minutes after the avalanche released, according to eyewitness statement. The group of the survivors didn’t have a radio to communicate to the base, as they should have according to the safety regulations. When a guide takes a group solo he has to have a client with a radio trained to take action in case the guide is buried in an avalanche. Survivor eyewitness Brandon Corbet, had his Go Pro camera on. He revealed that he had erased from the actual footage the search and rescue but kept only 36 still images. He revealed that only three of the surviving clients and two guides were involved in the search and rescue. He revealed the actual time line from the time the victims were buried until their bodies were recovered was 47 minutes. After 47 minutes the place was swamped with other guides. (A person located in the first 15 minutes has an approximately 90 percent chance of survival. The probability of survival drops off rapidly after that time. After 90 minutes, the probability of survival is approximately 25 percent).
Rob Liberman was flown straight to Haines Medical Clinic. Transportation of the unconscious Nickolay Dodov to a hospital was untimely: Nickolay was first taken to the base. According to eyewitness when Nick was brought to the base he was not responsive and that is when they stopped giving him CPR. Nickolay was dead. An ambulance arrived 37 minutes later. The ambulance was at the base for 28 min. Then Nick was driven 40 minutes to Haines Medical Clinic. It takes only 9 minutes by air from the avalanche site to Haines Medical Clinic. The total time from the time Nick was buried under the snow until his arrived in the Haines Medical Clinic was 2 hours and 32 minutes. According to eyewitness statement AH didn’t have adequate number of helicopters for the numbers of clients they had at the time to respond timely and sufficient to search and rescue operation. AH operating permit states; If necessary, the victim will be transported directly to Haines Medical Clinic or Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau for treatment.
Somewhere on the way to the clinic, or in the clinic Nick’s heart was revived. Nickolay Dodov arrived in Haines Medical Clinic 1.02pm on March 13, 2012. The Haines Medical Clinic revealed that they provide only 2 hours of life support. Nickolay was kept at the Clinic for over 6 hours.
Nickolay Dodov was transported to a hospital in Seattle, WA, where he arrived 1.30am on March 14, and where he was declared dead. According to the doctors from TraumaCenter in Seattle his actual death occurred in Alaska. Nickolay was transported out of the state of Alaska, to prevent a state investigation
Alaska Heliskiing LLC stated in their 2012 operating permit;
“Pilots and guides each have an equally difficult task in assuring the safety and happiness of the helicopter skiing client. Pilots and guides must work together as a team helping each other to overcome the dangers of this activity and profession. People who come to ski/snowboard with us are spending a lot of money and in some cases save for years just to afford one trip like this in a lifetime. Therefore, we must try to do everything in our power to assure their total safety and complete satisfaction. We can only accomplish this as a team with open communications, understanding, patience, consideration, and respect. Any deficiency in any of these qualities or operation must be discussed and rectified. Our team abilities, environment, safety skills, and superior attitude are what will give our clients an amazing experience, and keep them coming back.”
THE GOALS OF THE SAFETY PLAN OF Alaska Heliskiing
“The goal of this safety plan is to develop a backcountry skiing program that will promote the safety of our guests. A degree of hazard is inseparable from the use of alpine winter recreation areas where severe weather and rugged terrain is often encountered. Careful compliance with this plan, however, will minimize the danger and help to safeguard the public from foreseeable hazards.”
In the deadly avalanche accident of March 13, 2012, Alaska Heliskiing ignored the dangerous conditions, and in an urge to make money pushed the guides and the clients to go ski.
AH knew that the avalanche danger was high, did not tell its clients about the dangerous conditions and instead persuaded them not to be concerned about conditions. The clients were not adequately warned or informed of the inherent dangers the day of March 13. The clients did not receive proper instruction on use of safety equipment. The trip was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The guide used bad judgment. The rescue was overly lengthy and complicated and lead to the death of the client. Permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures, and protocols in the tour company’s Operations Plan were broken contributing to the death of our son Nickolay Dodov.
Alaska Heliskiing LLC didn’t follow the safety plan and search and rescue protocols from their operating permit, they only followed the risk management and guidelines for handling an accident and how to deal with victims family and media.
Risk Management is the process of doing everything you can to protect people, property, and assets from losses.
There is a lot more to Risk Management than simply buying insurance. When you purchase insurance you really have entered into a partnership with your insurance program. It is your combined assets that are at stake. If you approach this matter casually your insurance program will be looking for a new partner: as well, the future of recreation will be compromised.
To further understand the importance of Risk Management, it is useful to look at the five most common allegations of a lawsuit against Recreation Service Providers:
A. The injured was not adequately warned and informed of the inherent dangers.
B. The injured did not receive proper instruction on skills and the use of equipment.
C. The trip was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
D. The guide used bad judgment.
E. The rescue was overly lengthy and complicated and subjected the injured to undo pain and suffering.
GUIDELINES FOR HANDLING AN ACCIDENT
What To Say, Not Say, Do, and Not Do
Often the opportunity to defend an Outfitter or Guide against frivolous litigation is lost in the few days after the accident occurs. As time goes by, memories fade, details are forgotten, and the opportunity to put a professional face on the entire incident is lost. Quite often litigation attorneys wait until the Statute of Limitations almost expires before they file the lawsuit. Their hope and the reality unfortunately, too often is that by the time the lawsuit is filed, so much has been lost and forgotten that it becomes impossible and impractical to defend the outfitter against the lawsuit. The sooner and the earlier information is gathered and obtained concerning the accident, the better your chances are of affecting a positive outcome if faced with a potentially damaging litigation.
The following guidelines will help the concerned Outfitter and Guide to handle accident situations properly and help avoid this type of litigation. Please remember speed is of the essence. Any delay could end up costing the Outfitting industry, and ultimately the Outfitter, thousands of dollars in legal fees and higher insurance premiums.
RELATIONSHIP TO THE INJURED
Lawsuits are entered by injured parties when they feel that the Outfitter has not demonstrated the highest level of care and concern for their well being and personal safety. This care and concern starts before the accident, and should be an ongoing element of the entire trip. Learning peoples names, responding to them as individuals, and showing care and concern for their well being throughout the trip is probably as important, if not more important than the care and concern you show to them once the accident has occurred. Remember to make friends. You are less likely to sue your friends. Search and Rescue experts and Psychologists have taught us that injured persons respond better and develop lesser degrees of shock, if one individual is assigned to that person, stays with that person throughout the evacuation, rides with them in the ambulance or vehicle to the hospital. Checks them into the hospital, remains with them in the waiting room and gives them the same kind of care and attention that a parent would give their child. This consistent thread from the accident site through the evacuation, into the hospital, has a calming and settling effect on accident victims. It is often the most important factor in discouraging accident victims from going into litigation. Do no give them an opportunity to get upset.
As well, the comfort and psychological well being of the rest of the trip participants is an important factor.
Other individuals, family members, and witnesses are going to be canvassed later for their opinion of what happened, what occurred, and what type of care was given to the injured party. These people have in certain situations, become accident victims themselves because of their own mental state and the Outfitters disregard for their well being. Make certain that the entire party is taken care of, administered to, and made comfortable. Their evaluation of what happened will be a critical element of litigation.
1. Not make any guarantees of a speedy evacuation. You can say that you are dong the best you can, that you have sent for help, that we are in a remote situation and it could take some time to get you out.
2. Not make admission of guilt or wrong-doing, such as “We’ve had problems here before”. Comments of this nature will be very damaging in litigation. Do not make value judgments or statements concerning what happened.
3. It is okay to say you’re sorry that they are hurt, that you are doing everything you can to get them out as fast as you can, and to show empathy and sympathy for what they are experiencing.
4. Obtain as many pictures as possible of the accident site and the accident victim. Pay particular
attention to the terrain encountered by the accident victim immediately before the accident occurred.
As well canvas all participants to see if by chance some might have recorded the accident on film.
NOTE: Accidents with known injurious consequences involving evacuations and transportation to medical personnel for further evaluation and treatment must be reported to the Insurance Company by the Association Member within 72 hours.
COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE NEWS MEDIA
If there has been a fatality, the prudent Outfitter can count on some contact with the News Media. Often this contact leads to poorly documented facts of the accident and results in bad publicity and potential litigation problems. The company owner will designate a spokesperson to provide information to the News Media. The spokesperson should do the following.
1. Prepare a factual statement to be reviewed by legal council if necessary.
2. Communicate the statement to the Wire Service, AP, and UPI.
3. Set up a system for handling telephone inquiries.
In the unfortunate event that the News Media has picked up on the fact that there has been an accident, and they arrive at the accident scene, remember, their job is to sell press. They are going to try to sensationalize and dramatize the story as much as possible. They will ask leading questions, make accusatory statements, heckle other members of the party, and press them for statements. These statements may or may not be accurate concerning the events of the accident. At the scene of the accident and or evacuation, it is best to appoint a representative to speak to the press and make very few statements. Encourage them to contact the main office for a further statement. Your best defense is to say “We do not have any comments at this time”.
Try to keep the News Media away from other members of the party, if at all possible.
The following comments are offered as a general guide in dealing with the News Media. You will find the News Media cooperative if you deal with them straightforwardly and with facts subject only to legal constraints, consideration of next of kin, protection of the injured, and good taste. Hesitantly, or improperly dealing with the press in an emergency situation may not only escalate their news coverage, but in the long run can be critically costly to your program, and take a great deal longer to remedy. From a public relations point of view, the objective is to have a one day story, and to avoid a continuing series of headlines and features dragged out over a period of days or weeks.
Most dealings with the News Media will take place over the phone. Rather than reading a canned story to the caller, the spokesperson should have a written list of key points for reference and tell the story in his or her own words. The press will want to know.
What Happened, where it happened, who was involved, why it happened, and background on out
Alaska Heliskiing’s LLC operation permit (issued by Haines Borough) was 5 years outdated. Alaska Heliskiing’s 2012 operating permit (stamped and signed by Haines Borough) states: BLM responsibility of administration of Alaska Heliskiing, LLC helicopter skiing operations include: inspectional of facilities and operation for compliance with the tour permit terms so that public health and safety are protected, and satisfactory public service is provided; Cooperation with Alaska Heliskiing, LLC personnel in avalanche safety with regard to the helicopter skiing program; a close working relationship with the Haines Borough and BLM is desirable. Because BLM had not issued AH permit since 2005, these administration responsibilities were not followed.
Alaska Heliskiing LLC has no current land use permit from the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and has not had one since 2005. If they had attempted to obtain a permit, the BLM would thoroughly screen AH. By definition, BLM is responsible to require and inspect operation and safety plans, perform extensive environmental analysis, perform monitoring, perform evaluations and on-the-ground compliance for any and all Special Recreation Permits.
Date: Tue, 30 Oct 2012 10:36:19 -0600
Subject: RE: we are sending all the information to Alaska Bureau of Investigation
I hope I can help answer and clarify your questions below.
First, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) thoroughly screens applicants; requires and inspects operation and safety plans; performs extensive environmental analysis; and performs monitoring, performance evaluations, and on-the-ground compliance on any and all Special Recreation Permits we issue on the lands we manage. With respect to the unfortunate incident that occurred earlier this year near Haines, the accident occurred on non-BLM managed lands and I understand was operating under an authorization administered by the Haines Borough. I’m not fully engaged as to what the permit requirements and compliance process is for the Haines Borough.Second, I need to reiterate that Alaska Heliski does not have a BLM permit for 2012. This company did in fact submit an application with our office requesting to operate on BLM lands in 2012 but we didn’t issue them a permit. This is related to my previous message that no new applications will be processed or approved until we have completed our Ring of Fire Resource Management Plan Amendment for the Haines area, which includes an analysis of permitted helicopter activities. Third, I don’t understand you’re third question. Can you please rephrase it.Also if helpful, I’ve attached a color-coded land ownership map of the Haines area so you can see where BLM managed lands and jurisdiction are as compared to State/Haines Borough lands. The checkerboard land ownership pattern in Alaska can be quite confusing. Just remember that lands listed as Selected and colored light blue or beige on the attached map are currently managed by the BLM, until such time the lands are approved or not for conveyance to another land owner. Our office has not issued any permits for commercial heliski activities in the Haines area since 2005
To further answer your question from below, BLM applicants and permittees are required to comply with all Federal, State, and local laws; ordinances; regulations; orders; postings; or written requirements applicable to the area or operations covered by the Special Recreation Permit (SRP or permit). Therefore, applicants in the Haines area may be required to submit additional supplemental information, such as a letter or permit granting permission to use private or other agency land in conjunction with public land (e.g. Haines Borough Commercial Use Permit for Alaska Heliski). Bottom line, Alaska Heliski may have wanted or thought they were going to be issued a BLM permit in 2012 but the BLM manager told them we will not be issuing any permits for commercial heliski activities until our current land use planning effort is complete.
Regarding any correspondence I may have received from a Tim Thomas from last October, I’ve checked my archive email and files and I don’t have anything from this individual. In fact, my point-of-contact with Alaska Heliski’s last submitted application with our office is Sean Brownell and I don’t recall ever speaking to the individual you mentioned.
Yes, BLM has several recreation permit specialists in Alaska who perform permit administration and compliance. I don’t have any knowledge of who’s performing similar duties for the Haines Borough regarding surrounding State lands.
Again, please feel free to call me anytime.
Outdoor Recreation Planner
Anchorage Field Office
4700 BLM Road
Anchorage, Alaska 99507
Alaska Heliskiing LLC has no current land use permit from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and has not had one since 2008. By definition of DNR regulations, Alaska Heslikiing LLC is criminally trespassing on StateLand. The incident happened on StateLand managed by DNR. Alaska Heslikiing LLC not having a DNR permit has not been inspected and regulated for storing diesel, spill plan and prevention methods. Therefore, Alaska Hesliskiing LLC stored diesel fuel too close to the river.
Subject: Alaska Heliskiing
Date: Mon, 5 Nov 2012 21:04:12 +0000
Natalia and Alex:
I apologize for not responding in a timely manner. Please do not construe my tardy response as me not being sympathetic to your cause or an attempt to hide anything. We have nothing to hide. In fact, we have had several inquiries about our relationship with Alaska Heliskiing and the permits we have issued to them. These inquiries are actually documented and part of the public record.
The last time DNR issued an authorization to Alaska Heliskiing as November, 2008 and it was valid for approximately one month. If their daily client load on state owned land within the Haines State Forest over the past 4 to 5 operating seasons has been 11 or less per day, their activity would have been covered under our Generally Allowed Uses (11 AAC 96.020) provided they registered their Commercial Recreation Day Use with DNR athttp://dnr.alaska.gov/mlw/commrec/. Upon checking our Commercial Day Use registration information, it appears as if they did not register their Commercial Recreation Day Use. Alaska Heliskiing not having registered their Commercial Recreation Day Use or secured a DNR land use permit was not authorized to use state owned land within the HainesStateForest for commercial recreation purposes.
If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to call me. I am in the office Monday through Friday 8:00AM – 4:30PM.
David L. Kelley
Regional Manager, SEROLand Office
AK Division of Mining, Land & Water
1 (907) 465-3402
A full copy of ;
Alaska Helissking LLC misrepresented its safety standards and activities, inducing clients to use its services. Alaska Heliskiing LLC claimed on it’s website to be a member of Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association, that sets strict safety standards, and the guides meet or exceed the Association requirements. In fact, AHSA does not exist, according to numerous industry operators. These claims were later retracted and removed from the AH website.
The safety section that was removed from AH website;
An article in;
Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966
Heli-ski safety claim in question
By Karen Garcia
Until Tuesday evening, Haines-based Alaska Heliskiing claimed on its website to be a member of the Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association, which does not exist, according to numerous industry operators.
In the safety section of the company’s website, under the heading “Our Safety Program,” Alaska Heliskiing claimed membership in an organization called the Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association.
“AHSA sets strict safety standards for Alaskan helicopter skiing operations and as part of our membership we are required to have our safety systems and procedures reviewed on a regular basis,” the site read.
Numerous heli-ski operators in the state said they had never heard of such an association and that it does not exist.
Scott Sundberg, owner of the Haines-based Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA), said the association was a loose, unofficial group of operators in the early 2000s that “fell on its face” and “fizzled” by 2003. Sundberg said the group never set safety standards and was never responsible for monitoring or reviewing the safety protocols of heli-ski operators in Alaska.
Alaska Heliskiing removed the safety section of its website Tuesday after the CVN sent emails to company officials about the advertised affiliation.
Alaska Heliskiing’s website also stated, under the heading “Our Guides,” that “each of our guides meets or exceeds the requirements of ‘a guide’ as set by the Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association.
The website’s statements were described as “not factual” and “fictitious.” by processionals in the heli-skiing industry.
“Of the 19 heli-ski operators in Alaska, there’s one member of the Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association. And that’s them,” were the words of professional heli-skiing guide.
Scott Raynor, the owner and operator of Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, said he was not familiar with an Alaska Helicopter Skiing Association. Mark Kelly, of the Valdez-based H2O Guides, also said he “doesn’t believe it exists.”
Alaska Heliskiing’s safety protocols have come under scrutiny recently due to an avalanche last spring which killed an Alaska Heliskiing guide and client.
“When we’re reviewing their permit, if they’re making claims on their website that are erroneous, that would contribute to a negative review of their permit, I would think,” Scott said.
Alaska Heliskiing owner Vicki Gardner did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment. Orion Koleis, the company’s operations manager, did not return an emailed request for comment.
We submitted an “Assembly Action Request” with Haines Borough on 8/17/12. This request for investigation has never been on the agenda for public hearing. Instead it has been held with the Borough attorney. Our request was for a review and investigation from Haines Borough, as they are the ones who administer the original, outdated Heliski operating permit.
After three weeks with no response from Haines Borough we called the editor of Chilkat Valley News, Tom Morphet, he posted two articles in the newspaper;
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Victim’s family: Revoke heli-ski permit
By Tom Morphet
The parents of a 26-year-old man killed by an avalanche during an Alaska Heliskiing tour in March want the Haines Borough to discontinue the company’s permit, saying details of the fatal accident showed the firm did not follow its own, borough-approved operation and safety plan.
“We believe permit requirements and compliance to policies, procedures and protocols in the operations plan have been broken, resulting in the death of Nickolay Dodov. We have documentation of negligence, unsafe operations and procedures not followed,” Alex and Natalia Dodov wrote to the borough Aug. 17.
The couple sent 23 pages of documents including ones comparing the company’s operations and safety plan to details contained in an avalanche incident report written by Alaska Heliskiing guide Kent Scheler.
The complaint became known this week after the Dodovs forwarded it to the Chilkat Valley News. Phone calls and e-mail messages to Alaska Heliskiing Tuesday and Wednesday were not returned to the newspaper.
Alex Dodov describes himself as a professional ski and snowboard coach who worked as a heli-ski guide and operator in Europe. In an interview this week, the couple said they would sue Alaska Heliskiing for gross negligence.
“We realize that heli-snowboarding is an inherently dangerous sport. We have a life of outdoor experience… We have learned that Alaska Heliskiing was extremely negligent, ignoring normal safety protocol. We believe to attract kids with your advertisement and not do your job in a professional way has no place on the mountains,” they wrote.
Nickolay Dodov, 26, of Truckee, Calif ., and company guide Rob Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo ., died in a skier-triggered avalanche at “Swanny’s,” a mountain bowl on the west side of Takhin Ridge at about 10:30 a.m. on March 13.
The couple’s allegations, in several areas, contradict statements made to Alaska State Troopers shortly after the accident by Dwight Bailey, one of five skiers in the group on the fatal trip.
In an interview this week, the Dodovs said their information includes footage from a “Go Pro” film of the outing and testimony from another skier in the group, Casey Osteen, a friend of their son.
“There’s a lot of conflicting information,” Natalia Dodov said this week in a telephone interview.
The couple said the film shows Bailey expressing suspicion about snow conditions and eliciting this response from guide Liberman: “Don’t be concerned. The snow should be fine. It’s just an alpine bowl.”
Liberman also referred to Swanny’s as “the bunny hill,” according to the Dodovs.
According to the Dodovs, skiers in the group first were taken to a peak where Liberman tested the snow condition and found it unsafe. They proceeded to a second slope, where they made a run, but wet snow there was sticking to their snowboards.
Osteen told guide Liberman he didn’t want to spend any more money on “crappy snow,” but Liberman told the group that the company was already paying for the helicopter, the Dodovs said.
“My boy was getting close to Rob (Liberman). He’d support Rob in any way,” Alex Dodov said in an interview.
But the Dodovs also claim Liberman made jokes about his clients wearing safety gear, including breathing devices and inflatable cushions that keep skiers atop avalanches. Dodov was wearing both devices when he died. Liberman wasn’t wearing either one.
“He said, ‘Why are you wearing that stuff? I never wear that stuff.’ (Liberman) said, when his time comes, it’s okay with him,” said Alex Dodov.
The Dodovs said the company had a responsibility, as outlined in its permit, to study and understand snow conditions, to check the stability of slopes and choose appropriate routes.
Inconsistencies they cited include a company report that the avalanche danger rating on March 13 was “moderate,” while the HainesAvalancheInformationCenter reported it as “considerable.”
The “considerable” rating is the most hazardous and comes when avalanche danger is high, but not immediately obvious.
“Avalanche education courses teach that slopes with 25 to 40 degree pitch with a considerable avalanche rating in effect are the most prone to major catastrophic avalanches,” the couple wrote.
The company’s report that the snowpack on March 12 was “right side up” conflicts with the avalanche information center’s that the snow was “upside down,” including “widespread weak layers,” the Dodovs said.
Among the questions raised by the family are:
· Why the Haines Borough hasn’t requested a full investigation of the accident and the company’s accident report;
· Why two other skier groups – one on a nearby ridge waiting to ski the same slope and another in the air – weren’t used in the attempted rescue of the buried skiers, as suggested by company’s avalanche plan;
· Why Liberman didn’t check on the readiness of his clients’ safety gear;
· Why an ambulance instead of a helicopter was used to bring Dodov into town; and,
· Why no one from the Alaska Heliskiing contacted them until two days after the accident.
The Dodovs also said that emergency contact information and a pilot roster information on the company’s permit application is out of date. “The Haines Borough put its stamp on a permit with information that was outdated four or five years. It’s like a small-town patting (the compnay) on the back,” Alex Dodov said this week.
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Mayor, assembly not informed of request
By Tom Morphet
Haines Borough Manager Mark Earnest on Wednesday cited a busy schedule for not informing Mayor Stephanie Scott or assembly members of a request for assembly action from the family of a dead heli-skier who claim a local guiding firm violated safety provisions of its borough-issued permit.
The borough received about two dozen pages of information from Alex and Natalia Dodov Aug. 24, claiming Alaska Heliskiing recklessly disregarded safety standards laid out in its permit, leading to their son’s death. Scott and assembly member Debra Schnabel learned of the claim Monday through information provided by the Chilkat Valley News.
“We were going to (tell Scott) in a meeting we kept trying to arrange. (Clerk) Julie (Cozzi) and I and the Mayor were going to meet. There were just interruptions,” Earnest said this week.
The family’s packet of information to the borough included a request that the assembly and other officials review Alaska Heliskiing’s permit in light of their allegations. Their request came on a borough form titled “Agenda Request for Assembly Action.”
Scott said she was “shocked” and “felt duped to an extent” that the matter was not brought to her attention, including when she was consulting with Earnest and clerk Cozzi early last week while preparing the agenda for the Sept. 11 assembly meeting.
“I have told them that it was impossible for me to do my job if I wasn’t forwarded requests for assembly action,” Scott said Tuesday.
Scott said she asked Earnest to provide a verbal report to the assembly on the matter for Tuesday’s meeting, but Earnest was absent due to illness and the family’s claim was not mentioned at the meeting.
At press time Wednesday, Scott was arranging for a letter to be sent to the Dodovs, explaining what actions the borough was taking.
Cozzi confirmed receipt of the Dodovs’ request on Aug. 24, three days after the assembly held a workshop on permitting changes for Alaska Heliskiing and two other companies, and five days before an Aug. 28 assembly meeting.
The assembly was scheduled to resume discussion of heli-skiing permit conditions at its Sept. 11 meeting.
Clerk Cozzi e-mailed the Dodovs that the agenda deadline for the Aug. 28 meeting was 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 20. “Therefore, since your submittal missed the deadline, this will definitely not be on this upcoming agenda. That agenda has been finalized and officially published.”
Cozzi informed the Dodovs that manager Mark Earnest was out ill and hadn’t seen the documents.
“I have begun processing your request, which will include a legal review, and I cannot yet give you an estimate of when you may expect a response from the borough. You will be contacted at some point, as soon as possible,” Cozzi wrote Aug. 24.
The Dodovs e-mailed the borough a personal letter the following day, Aug. 25, which Cozzi confirmed receiving Aug. 27. On Sept. 6, Natalia Dodov again e-mailed Cozzi: “Please let us know when to anticipate the assembly meeting date in which the AH permit renewal will be reviewed. We would need to make plans.”
On Sept. 6, Cozzi responded, “I will check with the manager and Mayor and get an update for you.”
Scott said this week that Earnest made only superficial mention of a correspondence from the Dodovs.
“(Assemblywoman) Debra (Schnabel) had heard the (Dodovs) were making inquiries and I suggested to Mark Earnest that we have an executive session to discuss the Williamson (drowning) lawsuit, the Kammerer complaint (against the police department) and Alaska Heliskiing. I was told there was nothing to discuss,” Scott said this week.
In an interview this week, Cozzi said she was serving as acting manager when the Dodovs’ request arrived and she forwarded it to Earnest and to borough attorney Brooks Chandler. She said she didn’t believe the request was an assembly matter, as the borough manager issues heli-ski permits.
“This is not under the purview of the assembly. It’s not an assembly thing. Just because someone wants something to go to the assembly doesn’t make it an assembly thing,” Cozzi said. “My job is to receive things and to disseminate them. I asked (Earnest) to disseminate this.”
Cozzi said she’d repeatedly asked Earnest about forwarding the information to Scott.
“I asked the manager. I said, ‘I need to tell the Mayor something.’ He told me to tell her that we’d received a communication from the family of the (Alaska Heliskiing) client and that at some point he’d be meeting with the Mayor so she could decide whether or not or when there was something for the assembly to do and it would go on the agenda… I still contend that the assembly has nothing to do with this right now,” Cozzi said.
Cozzi said she did mention to Scott that there had been correspondence from the family. “I told the Mayor we had received communication from the family and that the attorney advised that it was not under the assembly’s purview at this time, if ever.”
Cozzi said she forwarded the Dodov’s information to lawyer Chandler “because when I read through it, I was concerned… at least the implication was there that we had liability.”
The extent of borough work on the Dodov material was unclear this week. Cozzi characterized Chandler’s work on the matter as an “investigation.” Earnest said: “We were going to be looking at some aspects of (the Dodovs’ request) for an investigation.”
Earnest said he directed the attorney to review the family’s claims and Chandler has responded. Earnest, who was interviewed Wednesday while at home sick, said he has received a response from Chandler but couldn’t characterize it.
Some of the emails from the Haines Borough Officials and the Mayor of Haines;
|From:||Natalia Dodova (firstname.lastname@example.org)|
|Sent:||Thu 9/06/12 6:05 PM|
|To:||julie cozzi (email@example.com)|
Hi Julie Cozzi
Please let us know when to anticipate the assembly meeting date in which the AH permit renewal will be reviewed. We would need to make plans.
Natalia and Alex Dodov
julie cozzi (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I will check with the manager and mayor and get an update for you.
Julie Cozzi, MMC
P.O. Box 1209
“The most wasted day of all is that in which we have not laughed.”
mark earnest (email@example.com)
To: Natalia Dodova, Julie Cozzi, Stephanie Scott
Cc: Darsie Culbeck
I am very sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this. It is totally my fault, and I accept 100% responsibility for the delay. We will get back with you as soon as possible with whatever information we can provide to you.
stephanie scott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To: Natalia Dodova
Cc: Julie Cozzi, Mark Earnest
Please believe me when I say that you have not been forgotten! As of this time, we have nothing to report. Our procedures require heliski operators to apply annually for a permit. Alaska Heliski has not applied. Your request to have the permit revoked is still before the Manager and will be considered when and if the operator applies for a permit.
I can imagine that this situation is not very satisfying because at this time there is simply no guarantee that the Manager will take the action you desire. Many factors will enter into the decision, including information from the investigation by the Alaska State Troopers and the findings of our own internal examination. To my knowledge, neither of these processes have been concluded.
Perhaps, at this time, I could inquire as to additional actions that you may have taken?
Please don’t hesitate to contact me either by email or by phone.
Mayor, Haines Borough
The police and Haines Borough are under the authority of the Mayor’s office. It is disturbing that the Mayor wasn’t aware of our complaint.
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Mayor aims to improve communication
The Mayor sets meeting agendas, but neither she nor assembly members were notified of an August complaint and request for assembly action from the family of heli-skier killed during a tour here in March.
The complaint instead went to the borough attorney.
Haines resident response to Haines Borough covering up the deadly accident
Time to restart search for next manager
The borough assembly should restart the search for a new manager. Our current one is not doing the job that he is getting paid for. Unfortunately the assembly made the decision to retain him after he was out the door. The public’s best interest is not being served.
Now the assembly is having to deal with the repercussions of being kept in the dark on legal issues and shoddy enforcement of code and ordinances. The frequent answers we hear are, “I’m working on it” and “That’s not public information.”
We elected our current Mayor on a platform of open government and transparency. Perhaps it is time to return to a strong Mayor form of government. At least then we have a locally elected official to hold accountable. The revolving door of part- time managers is not working for our community.
We were still in Seattle after our son passed away, when Donna Catotti called from Haines. Donna Catotti is our friend who used to live in Bear Valley and had adopted two boys from Bulgaria. We used to have Donna and her husband Rob Goldberg’s art work in our gallery in Bear Valley for years. Every Christmas they would send to us a post card with photos of them and the growing boys, and photos of their trips to Bulgaria. Before Nick went to Alaska we exchanged emails; Donna and Rob were saying that Alaska Heliskiing was the better company in Haines. Donna and Rob didn’t mention about any ongoing disputes for years in Haines with the heliski companies being recklessly operating and flying out of bounds. “It was just a matter of time before something tragic would happen”, we learned later on from residents of Haines, who had been sending complaints to Haines Borough and had been writing letters to Chilkat Valley News. Donna and Rob had invited our son to dinner, they were looking forward to practicing their Bulgarian with him; asking us if “Nick still speaks fluent Bulgarian”.
On the phone call in Seattle Donna expressed her deep condolences and asked if we knew anything about the accident. Alex told Donna that, according to Dr Nobel from Haines Medical Clinic, the accident happened in a remote place and Nick was under the snow for 15 minutes. According to Brandon Corbett, the avalanche happened so fast, Nick couldn’t reach out for the rip cord of his air back pack. Donna said that this is the first accident in Alaska, that Alaska Heliisking is the best company and that their guide Rob Liberman, who was killed in the avalanche with Nick, was Alaska Heliskiing’s best guide.
Donna said that in the evening they would have a Memorial for Rob and Nick in Haines. She asked us if we wanted her to say something about Nick. We talked about how we and Nick, having been living for our whole lives in the mountains and skiing the backcountry, we knew the inherent risk.
Anchorage Daily News and Chilkat Valley News were the two first newspapers addressing the accident.
CHILKAT VALLEY NEWS
Heli-ski guide, client killed in avalanche
Slide danger was ranked ‘considerable’
By Tom Morphet
A heli-ski guide and a client died after being caught in an avalanche Tuesday morning during a heli-ski tour near ChilkatLake.
AlaskaState Trooper Josh Bentz said Robert Liberman, 35, of Telluride, Colo., was pronounced dead at 12:30 p.m. at the Haines clinic. Nickolay Dodov, 26, of Truckee, Calif., died Wednesday afternoon at Seattle’s HarborviewMedicalCenter.
Autopsies will be conducted on both victims, trooper Bentz said.
Dodov and Liberman had been buried in six to eight feet of snow and were unresponsive when other skiers dug them out 20 to 25 minutes after the avalanche, Bentz said. Troopers were notified at 11:11 a.m.
Six skiers, including guide Liberman, had started out on an Alaska Heliskiing tour around 10:30 a.m. and were at the south end of Takhin Ridge, on a slope that faced northeast, Bentz said.
They were making the first run of the day down a familiar heli-ski peak known as “Swany’s,” that some of the skiers on board had descended about a week before.
Liberman descended first, positioning himself downhill and to the left of the clients. Using a walkie-talkie system that linked members of the group, the guide radioed skiers to come down, one at a time.
Three skiers had descended when Dodov headed down the peak, skiing a little farther toward the right than had the previous ones, apparently triggering the slide. Skiers at the bottom of the slope were on a ridge and reported the avalanche passed within 20 feet and on both sides of where they were standing.
Liberman and Dodov both were wearing electronic beacons that helped locate them beneath the snow. Dodov was wearing an “Avalung” breathing device and was found with its mouthpiece in his mouth. Dodov also was wearing a rip-cord-triggered air bag. The bag – designed to keep skiers atop avalanches – had not been deployed and its rip cord was still zippered into a pocket on Dodov’s suit, Bentz said.
Client Dwight Bailey, 35, of Avery, Calif., was at the group’s starting point, about 500 feet down from the top of the mountain, and the last group member still waiting to ski, when the avalanche occurred.
He told Bentz the crown of the avalanche was four to five feet high and that he thought guide Liberman had positioned himself in a safe spot.
The skiers had received a day of safety training, including on use of locator beacons and helicopters, Bailey told the trooper. “Everything was top notch,” Bailey said in an interview later with the CVN.
Bailey told the newspaper that members of the group didn’t make any avalanche tests on the peak, such as digging a snow pit, and he didn’t remember Liberman doing any tests. But he said he didn’t know it would have mattered, as such tests aren’t foolproof. “It wasn’t apparent to any of us that it was a danger.”
The group had been skiing Monday and the snow seemed firm enough that on Tuesday Bailey packed only his Avalung, and not the air bag. The other clients in the group carried both safety devices, he said.
“The stability was good, but different peaks, and different elevations and different exposures…,” he said.
Liberman had worked for Alaska Heliskiing for six years. In a narrative on the company’s website, he described himself as a former college ski racer.
Dodov’s trip here was his first, and he was accompanied by three close friends, including Bailey, a skiing buddy from eastern California.
Both Liberman and Dodov rated their skiing ability as “expert” in pre-tour paperwork filed with the company. Dodov wrote that he skis 100 days a year. Other clients in Dodov’s group Tuesday included Casey O’Steen, 35, of Murphy, Calif., Brandon Corbett, 34, also of Murphy, and Ryan Kirkpatrick, 28, of Salem, Ore.
Trooper Bentz said Alaska Heliskiing had three helicopters working in rotation and 40 skiers, including six guides, on the mountains at the time of the avalanche.
Erik Stevens, Haines avalanche forecaster for the AlaskaAvalancheInformationCenter, said he’d posted a warning of “considerable” avalanche danger in Haines Sunday, his most recent update.
Although the center’s scale of avalanche danger includes higher ratings including “high” and “extreme,” most human-caused avalanches occur at the “considerable” notch because the danger then is most difficult to discern, he said.
“No one goes out when it’s ‘extreme,’ and when it’s ‘high’ you know which slopes are going to slide. It’s easier to predict,” Stevens said.
Avalanche danger increases when a heavy snow falls on multiple weak layers of accumulation, as occurred late last week, he said. Stevens had ratcheted up the danger to “high” on Thursday and Friday, when several mountains shed during “natural” avalanches.
“The problem is that not every slope has reached the critical amount of snow that causes a natural slide to occur,” he said.
Recent cool weather in the mountains means that layers of accumulated snow hadn’t compressed and bound together, he said. Stevens said south winds last week would have tended to load snow onto the north sides of peaks.
Alaska Heliskiing co-owner Vicki Gardner declined to answer questions about the accident this week, but issued a statement. “We are all in a great state of mourning over the loss of our dear friend and our hearts and thoughts are with the family and friends of both victims… I would like to thank everyone in Haines for your expressions of compassion received yesterday and today.”
The company suspended operations Wednesday and was reportedly conducting its own accident investigation.
ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS
Second heli-skier dies from ‘huge’ Haines-area avalanche
By CASEY GROVE
March 15, 2012
A second man has died after a Haines-area avalanche Tuesday that killed a heli-skiing guide, Alaska State Troopers said.
The “huge” avalanche buried two men from a group of six skiing Takhin Ridge about 11 a.m. Tuesday, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters, relaying reports from a trooper in Haines. The ridge is south of Mile 33 of the Haines Highway, where helicopters whisk skiers to and from the backcountry.
Six to eight feet of snow covered the guide, 35-year-old skier Robert Liberman, and Nick Dodov, a 26-year-old client said to be riding a snowboard, Peters said. Everyone in the group was wearing avalanche beacons, and a second group of skiers in the nearby vicinity rushed to help uncover the two men, troopers said.
Liberman, a Telluride, Colo., resident and frequent visitor to Haines, was found dead. Dodov, from Truckee, Calif., was flown to Seattle for treatment and died there Wednesday, troopers said.
Liberman was guiding the group for Alaska Heliskiing.
Coming back from Seattle we found Natalia’s girlfriends from BearValley waiting at the Sacramento airport and they drove us to our little cabin filled with our friends. Later in the evening we received a phone call from the owner of AH, Sean Brownell. He said “This is the most difficult phone call in my life that I’ve ever had to make. As a father myself, I can’t imagine what you are going though.” He explained to us, “It was an accident; the avalanche happened in a remote place; Nick triggered the avalanche, the avalanche was undetectable; Nick and Rob were buried deep under the snow”. He also said that “it was an easy run which they skied six days ago, and the snow conditions were stable.” He invited us to go to Haines and he would take us to the place. Alex thanked Sean for calling us and said that we are very sorry for the loss of their guide.
On the following day we had to make difficult phone calls, calling our family, relatives and friends back in Bulgaria and around the World.
After this we left for Truckee. We didn’t want to leave Kalei, Nick’s fiancé, by herself. Driving to Truckee we got stuck in a winter storm, it took us more than six hours to get there. Making our way to Truckee and seeing the heavy snow coming down, sad and full of heavy thoughts, but at the same time looking at the snow… we were saying “here comes one of Nick’s jokes, it didn’t snow for the whole season and now is dumping”. Arriving almost at midnight, Nick’s house was full of all his friends waiting for us. The next morning all Nick’s friends from Tahoe took Alex to ride the powder.
We spent the next two weeks with Kalei, Sally and Nick’s friends in Truckee. Kalei’s brother came to visit with his wife from Hawaii. Jared also came to visit. We celebrated all together Kalei’s birthday.
We skied Squaw; thanks to SquawValley Resort management for transferring Nick’s season pass to Alex.
In Truckee for the first time we spoke to Brandon, Ike and Casey, three of the four survivors from the avalanche accident. The first details from the avalanche we heard from Brandon: “The avalanche happened in the area where we already skied before. Nick was the fourth skier coming down the mountain, he triggered the avalanche. They all saw Nick tumbling down the mountain and getting buried under the snow. The avalanche broke wide, Rob Liberman was positioned left of the skier, he got pushed by the avalanche over the cliff and then disappeared under the snow.” Brandon said, “Lucky for them they were on higher ground and the avalanche went by only four feet away.” He said, “After the avalanche stopped, he had a hard time to climb the snow debris. He said that he and Ike, who came down from the top of the hill, and two heli guides that were dropped on the scene from a helicopter, were the ones digging up Rob and Nick. Brandon also said that Nick and Rob were found at least seven, eight feet under the snow. He said it took them approximately 15-20 minutes to recover the bodies and Nick was found with his AvaLung in his mouth. Nick couldn’t open his air back pack, because the rip cord was zipped up. When we asked why Nick’s rip cord was zipped up, Brandon said that the company made them secure the cord while they were in the helicopter for safety, and the company is not responsible for checking the rip cord before each run. He also said, because they were in a remote area, it took awhile to take Nick to the Haines Medical Clinic. Brandon was in a very unstable state while he was talking, breaking, crying and after every other sentence he was saying that AH is the best company and Rob is the best guide. He also said that after this they were taken back to their place where they were questioned by the State Trooper Josh Bentz and members of AH provided hamburgers and made the survivors to sign papers. Brandon said that he has GoPro footage from the day of the accident. He also said that he is in contact with Ben Clark, who was making a film about AH and he has some footage of Nick.
While still in Truckee a couple of days after the accident, Sally received a phone call from Ike that Trooper Josh Bentz wanted us to call him to close the case. We never did it.
After hearing the story from Brandon, reading Chilkat Valley News article, clearly seeing the controversy with Anchorage Daily News article and having a state trooper in a hurry to close the case, some suspicions started to rise.
Coming back home for Nick’s Celebration of Life our mail box was full of Donna Catotti’s letters. We were telling ourselves how nice of Donna to do this. Along with the letters there were some photos of Vicki Gardner and Sean Brownell, the owners of AH, showing them crying, with explanation on the back of the photos that they are crying for Nick and Rob. Donna’s words about Vicki Gardner, “She was having a hard time feeling responsible. I was trying to help her feel better.”
In the morning, before Nick’s Celebration, all our friends and Nick’s friends came to ski with us. The Bear Valley Mountain Resort generously had given vouchers to everyone. It was a blue bird powder day.
Nick’s Celebration was held at Ironstone Vineyard, thanks to all of Nick’s friends who organized it.The beautiful spring flowers at the entry of the vineyard hall brought a welcoming and cheerful atmosphere.
Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Nick’s life; among them were many of Nick’s friends from Truckee, South Tahoe, CalaverasCounty, Santa Cruz, southern California, friends flying over from East Coast, Oregon, and England. Bear Valley Residents, Bear Valley home owners, our friends from Bear Valley Real Estate, all the Local Contractors, Post Office, General Store, MAS, The Snowmobile Center, The Cross Country Center, the Bear Valley Mountain Resort, the Sheriff Department, members of Arnold Fire Department, Nick’s teachers, Nick’s schoolmate’s parents, some Bulgarian friends, our windsurf friends from San Francisco Bay and Rio Vista, Angels Camp, Murphys and Sonora friends.
We all cheered Nick’s photos and Go Pro videos, and shared stories of Nick’s life. Everyone was with a big smile on their faces, full of love hearts and tears of joy, saying we should live our lives to the fullest the way Nick had lived his.
Our friends, family, ski, snowboard and mountaineering communities in Bulgaria have had a Celebration of Nick’s Life in a beautiful way too.
Nick was born free on February 15/1986 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He lived all his life free and he left this world free.
Every winter on Nick’s Birthday would always snow a lot. We were very young when we had Nick, Natalia was 17 and Alex was 22. Our life back in Bulgaria was spent between camping by the Black Sea every summer and skiing the mountains in the winter. At the beach Nick, being two and a half years old and butt naked was making friends with the whole campground.
At three and a half we put Nick on a pair of
skis. By the age of six and half he was skiing by himself the whole mountains.
At the age of eight he converted to snowboarding and ever since he dedicated his life to snowboarding.
Three years ago after surgery to repair a torn ACL Nick, being in pain and grumpy said “what am I going to do in my life if I can’t snowboard”.
Nick’s snowboard racing career started on a hard plate binding board going around the gates. Then came snowboard cross, free style, slope style,
jibbing on every rail and obstacle that Nick could imagine. He would apply the art of snowboarding everywhere.
Later on he brought his free style moves to the backcountry and the open mountain, slashing the fresh powder and jumping from every cliff flying as high as he could get with his favorite trick “method grab”.
Nick was a member of the Bulgarian National Junior team and in 1999 he competed in a Junior World cup in Telluride, Co. After we moved to the USA, he was competing in Tahoe Snowboard Series, The U.S. National Championship and qualified for U.S. Open.
Nick loved skateboarding and windsurfing.
During the two summers living by the ocean in Santa Barbara, Nick met two boys from Brazil who inspired him to learn how to surf. Nick loved surfing and the ocean as much as he loved snowboarding and the mountains.
Nick was an artist in many ways. He loved
drawing and painting on a canvas, seeing the world in bright colors, always
happy with a big smile.
Nick graduated from high school and went to college for two years.
After this he said “Now is my window to explore the mountains”. Nick was good with numbers and mathematics and was planning to go back to school to study architectural design.
Nick touched many people and made many friends. He was a loving person, helping everyone. Nick with his good heart would have been a good father. Nick had a passion and love for snowboarding and life itself.
Nick was our son, our best friend, our best team mate, and our teacher.