Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A not so good day in Kobuk

Sunday was not a very good day.  I woke up around 7:30 in the morning and since church isn't until 11, I just laid around.   I had spent the previous two nights sleeping on the floor of the high school in Kotzebue (which just for reference is actually the middle school and high school and the building is attached to the elementary school which is where I am currently laying on an air mattress typing this) and so I sort of fell back to sleep.  Somewhere in here I heard some banging, but ignored it.  I then woke up at 10:45 with a start.  I grabbed my phone and found the first piece of bad news.  A friend of mine texted me from another school district to say that if I heard about it there was a plane that had left McGrath the day before and had not made it to its destination.  She told me she was NOT on board, but that was the plane she was supposed to be taking that morning.  I tried calling her for more details (the text had been sent at 8:29), but didn't get an answer.  I'm hurriedly trying to get ready for church and I don't have Internet at home (and not really enough time to run over to the school to use it there), so I called mom and dad and had them look.  They couldn't find any details.  I ran over the church, but I was a few minutes late.
As I approached the church building, I knew something wasn't right.  There weren't any Honda's outside the church (in this part of the state everyone calls a 4-wheeler a Honda and the usually are).  I wondered since I had been out of town until the evening before if I had missed an announcement or something, but decided to try the door.  It was unlocked and I went in.  Sarah and the kids were there, but Luke (the preacher and Sarah's husband) wasn't.  Sarah told me that the school maintenance man (also the village VPO) had been in an accident, but she had no details.  Luke had gone over to the clinic.  When Luke arrived I learned that a barge had arrived and the maintenance man had been filling the school fuel tanks (with diesel fuel which we use for everything from powering the Hondas and snogo [snow machine to people from other parts of Alaska and snow mobile to everyone else] to heating the school and our houses) when he was electrocuted and they were waiting for the fog to clear for the medivac plane.  After we prayed we called it a day and I received a text from my friend that the plane had in fact crashed and a rescue was going on.  I went home and called my parents to update them on the plane and tell them the new development.  While I was on the phone I received a call from my principal that there was a fuel spill and asking for my help in cleaning it up.
To shorten this very long story, I will now simply tell you what happened rather than spell it out as I learned all the details in this crazy day.  Usually, in the spring Crowley's sends a barge with fuel and the barge also hauls other supplies that people have shipped up on it (heavy equipment and the like).  The barge tries to make it through and some years it can and others it can't.  This year it couldn't.  However, this year was unusual.  There has been a lot rain and the river is really high.  Thus, they tried to get a barge through and they were successful (we are the last stop because we are the village furthest up the Kobuk river).  So the barge arrived at 9:30 Saturday evening.  The men slept on the barge and then Sunday morning the maintenance man was working with the Crowley guys to fill the fuel tanks.  I later got to tour their boat and the man who gave me a tour explained that most of these places (and Kobuk is no exception) have equipment that isn't up to code.  If they refused to service all of those places they would go out of business and so their liability ends and the end of their hose.  The client is responsible for the nozzle and everything from that point on.  So our maintenance man was up on a ladder filling the tanks.  He was using a pole as a dipstick.  Unfortunately, the longest pole in Kobuk is a copper pipe.  Guess what's running up the school tanks?  The power line!  He hit the power line with a copper pipe and then couldn't let go.  He ended up throwing himself off.  He was pretty cut-up and I heard tonight (Tuesday night) that he is still in intensive care.  He was taken to the village clinic and the school secretary had been walking by so she tries to alert the staff, but most (or maybe all) of us weren't answering.  That was apparently the pounding I heard.  It was apparently at 8:30, but I ignored it.  The medivac plane couldn't get in because of the fog.  They in fact didn't get in for a long time after the fog lifted.  I spoke with the pilots while the medics were at the clinic stabilizes the maintenance man (which took nearly an hour) and they said we don't have any weather reporting and so they were delayed even longer because they had to guess off of neighboring villages (but we're the furthest up river so its hard to see a moving trend if we're clearing first).  It was 1:20 p.m. before the plane took off from Kobuk.  It was taking him to Kotzebue where he was then transferred to a Lear jet to Anchorage.
Additionally we had three different things that resulted in lost fuel.  Since I didn't witness any of them, I don't feel confident describing them.  However, I was told we lost approximately 280 gallons of diesel fuel (are tanks are full though because Crowley was still there and so we got everything filled).  The head of the district maintenance department told us not to do anything because of liability issues and so we didn't do any clean-up (we didn't really have supplies or know-how anyway) and a bunch of them arrived on a charter flight at 4:30 in the afternoon (remember the first accident was at 8:30).  Needless to say there is a big mess to be cleaned up in Kobuk.  When we flew to Kotzebue on Monday morning for In-service we left several men staying at the school (after all there are no hotels or restaurants in Kobuk) working on cleaning it up.
There were a few good points to the day.  One highlight was touring the barge.  I didn't take any pictures on the barge, but I did take some pictures of it.  It's too bad I don't have any way to show you how big it is in comparison to the town.  They run big orange fuel lines from the barge all around town to fill everything up.  It was quite interesting.  Enjoy the following pictures.

 The medivac plane on the runway.
 The ambulance meeting the medivac plane.
 The Crowley barge -  after fog cleared it was an absolutely spectacular day (except for about 10 minutes when the charter landed and it rained, but then the sun came right back out).
    The barge from the other side (this view is looking down river).

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