By Jerry Cegelske
December 12, 2007
Maybe he could get home after all before the predicted storm really turned nasty. It was starting to rain lightly which was a bad sign. The last he had heard, a massive low pressure was expected out of the Gulf of Alaska and would be pushing past the Alaska Range toward Fairbanks. Anchorage had already been hit with high winds and heavy rain. This was to be a 50 year storm, one of the bigger ones to hit in a long time. It would be a messy one as the temperatures had been between -20 and-30 degrees and with the rain hitting the frozen ground, a sheet of ice was already starting to build. If it followed true to form the ice sheet would be covered by wet snow and driving would be next to impossible. It was not something he was looking forward to for many reasons.
Photograph by Sgt Chad J. Goden AST-DPS
The divorce had been a bad one and he and Susan were no longer on the best of terms. Being any type of law enforcement officer was hard on marriages, but especially so in Alaska with the trips away from home and the problems that seem to always happen when he left. The furnace quits at -40, the car won't start, shoveling the snow, him not being there for the boys school functions, those and a thousand other problems that cropped up over the years. If she was going to raise the boys alone it would be in a warmer, climate friendly place, not "this cold hole". Anyway it would be nice to get away for two weeks and spend time with the boys in someplace warm.
He realized he had been driving on autopilot while thinking of all he had to do when the radio brought him back to reality. He responded with his call sign and got information from Fairbanks that a family of four was overdue on a trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks. With the 365 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks and them having left nine hours prior, they should have arrived by now. He was just past Nenana and decided to turn around and check with Tom Hughes at the store and gas station to see if they had seen the Toyota with husband, wife and two boys or if they may be back toward Anchorage.
After talking with Tom and the clerk at the store, Wally had a suspicion that this was not going to be ending well. The road from Nenana has some of the steepest hills of the whole 365 miles, especially that section approaching "Skinny Dicks" bar halfway to Fairbanks. With the roads being icy, semi's jackknife when they lose control going down the hills. Unless they have chains on, they can end up rolled over the side of the road as many have done. Car drivers don't know the road conditions and keep going at a speed good only for dry roads, but only until it is to late and they lose control. The other thing is that the road had iced over and now it was snowing heavily, the wet heavy snow that comes with a fast moving weather front. This is one of the reasons he didn't mind the cold temperatures as the roads were usually dry and in good driving condition in contrast to what he faced now.
After leaving Nenana he checked the road conditions by hitting his brakes and seeing what happened. He decided that wasn't the best thing to do when he did a 270 degree turn and was crosswise in the road. He called Fairbanks and told them that unless they could get trucks out to clear and sand the road, it should be closed. They reminded him that it was Christmas Eve and everyone had gone home. Nothing would be done until the 26th at the earliest. Wally advised them that with the road conditions as they were, he did not expect to get to Fairbanks by midnight, that's if he could make 20 mph. He may have to go slower while searching for the lost Toyota. He also advised them that the vehicle did not stop for fuel at Nenana and would probably be low on fuel, and if it had made it past Nenana, it may be in the ditch between there and Skinny Dick's. Wally signed off and concentrated on his driving before he ended up in the ditch.
He had never seen conditions like it with the heavy swirling snow. It was a battle between a cold northern high pressure and the low coming out of the Gulf. Although he was only doing 20 mph on the down hill while in 4 wheel drive, the rear end swung around and he was going sideways down the road. He almost missed seeing it, the small low spot in the berm the snowplow had put up while clearing the road last week.
When he got to the bottom of the hill and parked the truck with the emergency lights on, he called Fairbanks and advised them he was going back and check to see if the Toyota was there. When he tried to back up, the truck slid sideways so he parked it again and got out. If he was going anywhere in the truck he would have to put the chains on. He couldn't believe how slippery it was with the ice under the wet snow.
When he approached the hole in the berm, he saw that the slot was about five feet wide and he knew what he would find in the ditch. The brush had been flattened and the snow disturbed with tire tracks and drag marks from the frame. He worked his way down the slope and found the car on its side. The windshield was gone and the driver side windows were broken. There were signs of a struggle with blood stained snow on the door and front seat. He pulled the unconscious hypothermic driver out, checked his vital signs, and decided that he needed to get him to the truck where he could warm him up. He checked the woman in the passenger seat after uncovering her from the snow. She was in better condition but in shock and barely coherent. He told her that he would be back shortly. After checking for anyone else in the vehicle, he picked up the driver and started up the slope. It was a struggle to get the driver up the embankment. While carrying him down to the truck his feet had come out from under him twice. The second time he ended up flat on his back with the driver on top of him. The snow and his fur cap kept him from getting a concussion as it softened the impact of his head on the road.
He got the driver to the truck where Wally placed him on the back seat and covered him with a blanket, putting the heater on high. Wally called Fairbanks and told them to get EMT's on scene ASAP. He explained the situation at the car. He also stated that he didn't know if this was the missing Toyota, but that he would check when he went back for the woman. Advising Fairbanks that the road conditions were the worst he had seen, he told them to get Bob McNally (a friend of 20 years who whose abilities would make the difference in the lives of two people) from the Dept. of Transportation to take the lead and clear the road with at least two snow plows and two sanding trucks with plows on them. This was no time for miscommunication, to have someone second guess him or have someone talk about budgets, holidays or any other excuse as these people would die if help didn't arrive soon, it was already 10:30 pm. He explained that the mobile radio didn't have the range to reach Fairbanks and that he was going back to the car to get everyone out of it.
While walking back to the car, Wally again slipped on the ice, luckily not suffering any injury. He thought about the couple and how ill prepared they were for the trip. While nearing the hole in the berm he saw something that made him realize that this was the Toyota he was looking for. There were indentations in the snow leading down the road. His tracks and the truck tracks obscured part of them, so he missed them when he was walking to the car, concentrating on the berm and what he would find. There in the light of his flashlight were two sets of small indentations. He recognized them as the snow covered tracks that boys the size of Scott and Ryan made in the yard while it was snowing.
Wally moved faster as he was more aware of the stakes being bet in the battle for life. He got to the car and was able to get the woman to talk enough to find out that the two boys were with them in the back seat when the accident happened. Wally checked the area again, checking the license plate number and make of the car to relay to Fairbanks. He then carried the woman up the embankment and slowly to the truck where he place her in the front seat close to the heater which was running at full blast.
Wally called Fairbanks and was glad to hear that Bob had been contacted and would be on his way as fast as he could. He had called out six units for the trip and troopers would be on the way along with the ambulance. Wally relayed the information on the vehicle and that the two boys were missing and walking toward Fairbanks and he would head that way to find them after putting on the chains.
Wally hated losing valuable time putting on chains but that was probably the only way he would get the truck going up the hills with the ice on the road. Fortunately, he was almost an expert in putting them on. It only took ten minutes, or so, but Wally wondered if the boys had ten minutes to survive. It was then that he felt it. In the battle between the cold front and the high pressure cold air flowing out of the Arctic, the cold air was winning. He knew the temperature was dropping as he walked to the cab, studying the indentations in the snow. The snow was beginning to form a crust and the snow was not falling with the heavy flakes as before.
Wally got in the truck and started to drive but couldn't see the indentations in the snow so he got out with his flashlight and found them again. Upon getting back in the truck he still couldn't se the small indentations in the new fallen snow so he called Fairbanks and informed them that he would be out of the vehicle tracking the boys.
The crust on the snow was making it hard to walk and the snow was covering the tracks. Wally walked as fast as he could, unzipping his parka and taking off his fur cap to keep from getting too hot. After climbing the next hill, having fallen twice on the way up, he was glad to be headed down, but had to be more careful he didn't slip. He couldn't believe that the boys could walk this far, but he didn't know how long they had been walking. He thought how he could lose all four people if thing didn't work out. He worried about how hypothermic they were. He had done all he could for the parents. It was time to get the boys.
It was at the top of the next hill that he found the mound in the snow, knowing instantly what he was looking at. He brushed the snow from them, finding that the older brother had placed himself over his younger brother in an effort to save him. Tears came to eyes as he checked them and found them both barely alive. The snow had insulated them fro the cold wind that was now blowing with increasing intensity from the North. Pictures of Scott and Ryan flashed in his mind as he thought of what to do next.
Wally knew he had to use every bit of knowledge he had ever gotten in the survival training he had received over the past 15 years. He knew he had to get the boys to shelter if they were to survive. He took off his parka and unlaced his boots. Taking his knife he cut small holes in the hem of his parka and sewed the bottom shut with his shoelaces. He placed the boys inside the parka and activated the heat packs he carried in the pockets, placing some of them in his hanky between the boys and around them. After he zipped up the parka, he took the remaining piece of shoelace and sewed the cuffs of his parka together. That done he placed the sleeves over his head and with the boys in front of him, he began to walk to the truck.
The wind chill factor was about -30 but Wally didn't have a choice. His concern was the boys and their survival. He had his hat and gloves on, long johns under his uniform, and the parka in front of him to break the wind, but he knew he was in trouble. He estimated that he was a mile, maybe a mile and a half from the truck and with luck would be there in an hour or so. The boys weighed about a hundred pounds and the weight was heavy on his neck and arms. The body's demand to survive entered his mind when he thought that nobody would know if he chose to save himself, but the thought of Scott and Ryan brushed that fleeting thought from his mind. He prayed the boys would make it and then he knew he would. A positive attitude was the most important part of survival.
One foot in front of the other. After half an hour he was still fighting the crusty snow, and starting to climb the last hill before he would reach the valley where the truck was. Maybe he could drag the parka like a sled down the hill after he reached the top. He could feel his strength weakening and his legs felt heavy as he continued to climb the hill. He had lost feeling in his arms and back already.
Half way up he thought that they might make it after all even though he had lost most of the feeling in his body. He was beyond exhausted and operating on determination alone. He would not fail. He would win. "I will win. I will win. I will win". It was a mantra he repeated over and over and over.
It was after the 200th or 300th or 400th time he said it that his right foot slipped out from under him and he fell forward. Trying to catch himself and protect the boys, he thrust his arms out and brought his right leg forward to soften the fall. It was then that he felt the jagged glass shard from a tossed liquor bottle cut deep into the ligaments and tissue under his kneecap. He had never felt such pain. After he fought to overcome the pain, knowing that all of them would die there if he did not keep moving, he tried to stand, only to find the leg would no longer respond as he demanded it to.
With that, he began to crawl on his hands and knees, dragging the parka under him and feeling excruciating pain when he put weight on his right knee. He half laughed when he thought that the tracks he was making would look like a very fat bear dragging his belly in the snow. That was important-keep the humor going. All he could do was move forward as fast as he could.
Bob McNally was driving the truck as fast as he dared, using his 25 years of knowledge and experience. No matter the conditions the weather gave him, this was his highway. His friend need him and he would not fail. He looked in the mirror and saw the glow of the trucks behind him and estimated that they should soon arrive at the truck. They had passed "Skinny Dicks" half an hour ago. He was worried as they had not heard anything on the radio since the left. As the truck climbed the next hill he observed an odd drag track in the roadway, he couldn't place it.
Bob crested the hill. Heading down he could see the flashing lights of Wally's truck and was thankful they had arrived. It was then he saw the mound of snow in the road way. He would drive past the mound and past Wally's truck to make room for the other vehicles. Just before he passed the mound he saw a glimpse of blue, trooper blue, in the headlights and knew what they would find when they stopped and checked the mound. Bob drove past Wally's truck and parked his. He walked back and found the couple alive but needing help.
An EMT was walking toward Wally's truck as Bob walked back to where the troopers and EMTs were working near where the mound had been in the snow. A blue form was on a stretcher and being placed in the ambulance.
Bob walked up to Trooper Williams who told him that the boys were alive and would live, probably because of Wally's actions and the fact that the covered them with his body when he could no longer go on. Suddenly Bob felt very tired and turned the flashlight beam on his watch to see how long it had taken them to get there. It was 5:30 Christmas morning.
Editor's Note: This story is dedicated to the Alaska State Troopers and other Alaska Law Enforcement officers by Ketchikan author Jerry Cegelske.
Publish A Letter in SitNews Read Letters/Opinions