Family sues federal government over girl's death at ice caves
Grace Tam, 11, died July 31, 2010, from internal injuries. She was struck by an "enormous, truck-sized piece of ice," as she stood more than a dozen feet from a cave, according to the lawsuit.
Her parents, John Tam and Tamami Okauchi, answered questions during a news conference about the lawsuit on Tuesday.
They said that signs in the area do not adequately warn families of the dangers from snow and ice. They said they have tried to share concerns with the U.S. Forest Service since Grace's death but their attempts to highlight problems were ignored. The suit does not indicate the damages being sought.
Forest Service officials weren't immediately available for comment on Tuesday, but in recent months they have described their efforts to address safety in the area.
The ice caves are one of the most popular hiking attractions in Snohomish County and the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The trail leading to the caves has a gentle slope, and is advertised as being family-friendly and accessible for people with disabilities, said James McCormick, one of the family's attorneys with Tacoma-based law firm Messina Bulzomi Christensen.
McCormick said the easy trail creates a false sense of security, and that visitors may not realize the area is an unstable avalanche zone. The ice caves melt into the snow and ice that has sloughed off the north face of Big Four Mountain.
There typically are several warning signs in the area, but for whatever reason, there were none along the trail the day Grace's family went hiking, McCormick said.
"Unfortunately, the Forest Service took no steps to warn people of the danger the snow poses to visitors," he said.
Attorneys are researching other reports of injuries at the caves and at least one death as they prepare their case, he said. It could take more than a year before a trial may be scheduled. Because the forest belongs to the federal government, a federal judge must review the case.
On Tuesday, the Tam family said they worry that someone else will lose a loved one to falling ice and snow at the caves.
Tamami Okauchi said she misses her daughter and feels a "great pain inside."
Grace should have finished school, fallen in love, had children and grandchildren, John Tam said.
"She got cheated out of life," he said.
Grace's parents had one of her favorite T-shirts made into a teddy bear. Her mother clung to the bear during the press conference, and her father struggled to wipe the stream of tears from his eyes.
As is its practice after a death or serious injury, the U.S. Forest Service spent months examining ways to make the area safer.
It explored several options, including closing the area entirely and giving tickets to people who leave the trail. Instead, more signs warning about the danger of the caves, as well as falling rocks and avalanches, have been installed. Rocks also have been placed to better mark the end of the trail.
An emergency phone also was expected to be placed near the Silverton campground, shortening by about eight miles the distance somebody would need to travel to call 911. Cellphones usually don't work in that far up the Mountain Loop Highway.
There has been training for search and rescue volunteers and emergency workers aimed at improving response times and communication to the remote area around the caves.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org
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