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Lawsuit shows Park Service agreed to close Haystack turnoff after 1982 death

August 12, 2018

When Kalispell resident Mary Handford heard about the death of a 15-year-old boy from Idaho July 31 at Haystack Creek in Glacier National Park, she said it turned her blood cold.

“It’s a bad place,” Handford said. “I know the pain that boy’s family is feeling. It’s important that family knows what happened.”

Handford’s 20-year-old daughter, Lisa, slipped and fell to her death Aug. 6, 1982, while exploring a culvert that carries the creek underneath Going-to-the-Sun Road.

According to a Daily Inter Lake story published Aug. 8, 1982, Handford was in the park with a friend, 27-year-old Curtis Reber, when they stopped at a turnout at Haystack Creek after leaving Logan Pass.

They took off their shoes to wade in a small pool on the uphill side of the road before deciding to climb down into the rock-faced culvert along the fast-moving creek to get a better view.

Alan O’Neill, who was a park management assistant at the time, said in the story when Handford was about a third of the way through the culvert she lost her footing on the moss-covered rocks and was swept away. Reber tried to grab her, but lost his grip on her clothing.

She was swept through the tunnel and over the cliff, falling about 45 feet before landing on rocks below the falls.

“The stream was running pretty fast then,” Mary Handford said in an interview last week. “But something needs to be done. We argued with the park back then about posting signs or blocking the pullout there and they agreed to close it.”

According to park archives, it did close the turnout Aug. 9, 1985 after a lawsuit filed by the Handford family was settled June 27, 1985. The settlement included an order that the Park Service had to permanently close the one-car turnoff near Haystack Falls. The park was not forced to admit negligence.

Park officials told the Inter Lake last week that they are unsure when the Haystack turnoff reopened. However, the turnout and some places to park below it were closed off with orange cones as of Friday.

Prior to Handford’s death, a Whitefish man, Donald W. Ash, died Aug. 1, 1976, after falling off Haystack Creek when he climbed to a ledge near the waterfall to take a photo.

Two others have fallen to their deaths at Haystack in the last year. Robert Durbin was taking photos July 22, 2017 from above the culvert when he fell into the creek and was swept through it.

Spencer Flerchinger, 15, of Kamiah, Idaho, was visiting the park with his parents last month when, according to eyewitness accounts, he entered the culvert, slipped and fell 100 feet over a cliff below the culvert.

Hank Handford was just 11 when Lisa, his sister, died. Hearing of the Idaho teen’s death last month brought back painful memories.

“You’d like to think that chapter has been closed,” Hank said. “But it’s been allowed to keep happening. We’d like to see people made aware that it’s a dangerous place.

“Our intention is that this boy’s family knows what has happened here in the past,” Hank said.

Mary Handford echoed her son’s comments, saying “We’d like to see it not happen and for it to be permanently taken care of.”

“We wanted permanent signs put up there, but the park said it’d be obtrusive,” Mary Handford said. “There should at least be a warning. The National Park Service is a big operation, it’s not some mom-and-pop thing.”

Hank and his wife, Christa, drove up to Haystack Creek last week, less than a week after the Idaho teen died. They took photos that showed the entrance to the culvert had been roped off with a warning sign attached to the middle of it.

It was much the same after Lisa Handford’s death. According to the 1985 court filing, the Park Service posted warning signs in the area that read “Danger. Slippery rocks. Keep off.”

After the July death involving the Idaho teen, Glacier National Park Chief Ranger Paul Austin said, “It’s often the case that people hear about a tragic incident like this and think that it couldn’t happen to them. The facts are that many people explore the park each day in ways that could result in a serious accident. Take a few minutes before your trip to public lands to identify significant hazards. Prepare for the possibility of getting lost on a trail or an unexpected animal encounter. Stay away from rushing creeks and sheer drops.”

The park does provide safety information in a visitor guide that is provided at each entrance gate and on its website.

Glacier National Park’s Public Affairs Officer Lauren Alley said water-related deaths, particularly falls in or near water, are a leading cause of death in the park.

“In the alpine section, it’s tempting to want to balance on or climb over the rock walls that border the road, but they really are there to provide a barrier between people and the multiple hazards that exist up in the high country,” Alley told the Inter Lake. “The park has a lot of safety hazards, and it’s easy for folks to forget when they’re in such a beautiful place that they need to simultaneously be thinking about traffic, bears, wildlife, falls, drowning, and trail navigation.”

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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