Forest Service Sued in Seattle Over Ice fatality

By Doug Esser | December 22, 2011

The parents of an 11-year-old girl who was killed on a family outing by a big block of ice is suing the National Forest Service, saying it failed to adequately warn visitors about dangerous snow formations at the Big Four Ice Caves.

Grace Tam was crushed while sitting with her mother while her father and brother were taking photos nearby with two Japanese exchange students in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, about 20 miles east of Granite Falls.

Snow was melting rapidly on July 31, 2010, when the ice block the size of a pickup truck broke loose and slid into Grace, crushing her pelvis and causing fatal internal injuries. She died at the scene.

Parents John Tam and Tamami Okauchi said no one else should have to suffer as they have with the loss of their daughter. They spoke Tuesday at a news conference at the Tacoma law firm of Messina Bulzomi Christensen.

“This is an avalanche zone and needs to be treated like one,” attorney James McCormick said.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle accuses the agency of negligence. It seeks damages to be determined by a judge at a trial.

National Forest spokesman Kelly Sprute said it doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

The family lived at Lake Stevens and Grace was a fifth-grader at Kellogg Marsh Elementary School in Marysville.

The ice caves are at the end of a short trail, about an hour’s drive from Seattle. They are a popular destination for thousands of visitors each summer. The caves are formed as snow melts and water flows through the huge snowfield at the base of Big Four Mountain.

The location is out of cell phone range. When Grace was injured, another visitor went for help. It was about two hours before emergency responders arrived.

The ice caves are unstable and known to be dangerous. A Bothell woman was killed by falling ice in August 1998 when a cave partially collapsed.

The Forest Service has posted signs warning of the danger and telling people to stay out of the caves and off the snowfields. But signs are stolen or damaged by winter storms.

At the time of Grace’s death there were no warning signs on the trail to the Big Four Ice Caves, the lawsuit says, and warnings posted in prior years had not been replaced or maintained by the Forest Service.

“On the day of the Tam family’s visit to the Big Four Ice Caves, there was nothing to warn them of the dangerous and unstable snow conditions they would encounter,” the lawsuit states.

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