When Squaw Valley ski patroller Joe Zuiches was killed on Jan. 24 while conducting avalanche control, the tragedy left our community in shock and mourning. Ski patroller deaths from blasting are rare in this country; Zuiches’ death was the third in 45 years. We wrote a profile about Zuiches the day after he was killed, and grieved with the community.
After the accident, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigated the cause of Zuiches’ death, a process it said would take six months to complete. We marked our calendars and followed up with Cal/OSHA on July 24. Four days later, we received the results of its investigation.
Investigators had found two serious workplace violations (citations are classified as serious when there is a high probability that death or serious injury could result) and fined the ski resort $20,250. The report said the violations were unrelated to the accident and that the cause of Zuiches’ death remains unknown. Moonshine Ink published an online article about the report on Aug. 8.
Within two days, 10 other major local and state news outlets had picked up the story, including the Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. There was no press release issued about Cal/OSHA’s findings, and we believe that without our story, this report would not have been made public.
In two internal Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows emails obtained by Moonshine Ink and a My Shot column published in Moonshine this month, the ski area questions our intentions and professionalism in exploring the causes and consequences of Zuiches’ death. Squaw Alpine president Wirth wrote in an Aug. 10 email sent to employees, “Moonshine Ink, a local ‘newspaper,’ chose to run a story about a Cal/OSHA citation that our team received related to Joe’s tragic accident. This article is not only inaccurate and remarkably incomplete but is forcing us to re-live the terrible loss of Joe.”
We disagree with Wirth’s assessment of our credibility, motives, and legitimacy of the story. For one, by calling this publication a “newspaper,” Wirth is attempting to label a 15-year-old, award-winning publication as illegitimate because it wrote an article he deemed unfavorable to the ski resort. Secondly, Squaw declined to comment for the story or to go on record defending its appeal of the OSHA citations. Coming out afterward with information they never revealed to us is disingenuous. Thirdly, the duty of journalists is to seek the truth. While we should be sensitive, a reporter’s job is not to protect people from tragedy, but rather to shed light so that an unfortunate event and its aftermath can be understood, processed, and, ideally, avoided in the future.
We at Moonshine Ink strive to stay on top of what’s happening — and to recognize all of an event’s implications — so that we can keep our readers informed. We have been doing so for 15 years, and intend to do so for many more. While we encourage all of our readers, including those we cover like Squaw Alpine, to hold us accountable, we will not be intimidated nor will we stop reporting stories that are of interest to, and impact, our community.