Forget what the safety reports say. This car maker has been approved by one of the toughest tests the Mount Baker Highway could throw at it — or throw it down, as the case may be.
Two occupants suffered only “scrapes and bruises” Saturday afternoon, according to Washington State Patrol Trooper Heather Axtman, after their car left the roadway near milepost 51, traveled approximately 40 feet off the highway, tumbled over a steep drop and perched upon some rocks and a tree nearly 150 feet below.
“The vehicle was a black Honda (Civic), and if you’re in the market, I’d go for that,” Axtman said, referring to the safety of the two occupants.
Milepost 51, which is on a steep section of the road below Heather Meadows, near the Galena Creek cut, is infamous with Whatcom County Fire District No. 19. It was only a little over seven months ago that a car and four teenagers also left the roadway in the area, about 100 yards away from where Saturday’s accident occurred, District 19 Chief Ben Thompson said. All four passengers also lived in that incident.
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“When you hear your pager go off for milepost 51, you usually shudder,” Thompson said. “We’ve been up there a number of times, and a couple of decades ago, you knew it was going to be pretty grim. But now, with the way cars are being built, that’s not always the case.”
Axtman said witnesses reported seeing the car “fly off the road” at about 4:55 p.m.
“The problem with this part of the road is that about 40 feet off the road there’s a drop of about 150 to 200 feet.,” Axtman said. “This car didn’t stop, and it took the unfortunate drop.”
But before it went over the drop, Thompson said, the car very fortunately nearly came to a full stop, “so it was traveling at a very low rate of speed when it went over the edge, and there was not a whole lot of energy involved.” The car also barrel-rolled down the drop, rather than cartwheeling, which Thompson said also lessened the impact of the fall.
“Unbelievable,” Thompson said. “It’s a wonder of modern automotive engineering.”
One of the occupants in the car was able to walk from the scene with some assistance and exit the area on a trail system below where the car came to rest, Thompson said. The other had to be technically rescued from above by District 19, with the help of District 14, using a capstan, or cableless winch that is unique to the Glacier-area fire crew.
“The fact that the people weren’t injured gave us the opportunity to work in a low-stress manner,” Thompson said. “It was a a beautiful afternoon, and we thanked the people for giving us a chance to perfect our techniques. It was great teamwork by everyone.”
Thompson said the rescue took about two and a half hours to complete. The car, which needed to be secured during the rescue, was left sitting over the edge and was expected to be hauled back up to the roadway Monday, Axtman said.
Both occupants, who were identified as 26-year-old driver Abirami Manickavachagam and 31-year-old passenger Vivek Venugopal, were taken to the hospital as a precaution. Axtman said intoxication was not thought to be a factor in the accident.
“We don’t know what the cause was, yet, but fortunately, it just wasn’t their time,” she said.